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Pixar Sundays: A Bug's Life (1998)

          Oh boy, is there a complicated story behind this one. The movie that destroyed good working relationships, and incited a bitter feud between DreamWorks and Disney leaving people at both studios feeling betrayed. The short of it is Jeffrey Katzenberg developed an idea at his new studio DreamWorks for an insect film which the folks at Disney were already working on. Katzenberg claimed ownership of the pitch from years before when he worked at Disney, despite the Pixar movie being already in production. Steve Jobs and John Lasseter were furious, and it felt very much like a petty attempt by Katzenberg to undermine Disney CEO and his arch-nemesis, Michael Eisner. Whether you believe Katzenberg’s side of the story or Lasseter’s, it was a really messy affair for both studios, and forever cast a shadow over the films A Bug’s Life and Antz. It didn’t help that they came out within months of each other, and have ever since been doomed to be compared with one another.
          So as I’m obligated, which one’s better? Obviously, I loved A Bug’s Life as a kid -it’s colourful characters, underdog themes, and nice animation. And the story, which is essentially Seven Samurai with bugs, is naturally appealing. But Antz is definitely the better movie. It’s a sorry thing to say, but Pixar’s second feature really doesn’t hold up well.
          Set in an ant colony on a small island, Flik is a well-meaning screw-up whose attempts to make the ants’ lives easier always backfire. This is especially problematic when he accidentally destroys a seasons’ collection of food the ants customarily gather for a horde of grasshoppers. The colony is given an ultimatum by the fearsome Hopper to gather twice as much for next season, and as a result, Flik embarks on a quest to find bigger warriors who can take on the grasshoppers for them. He eventually finds and recruits a troupe of circus bugs, unaware of what they really are.
          Good movies need to have good protagonists, and Flik is a lousy one. Despite having the comic talent of Dave Foley from Kids in the Hall as his voice, he’s a relentlessly dull character. He’s every stereotypical misfit -ambitious, foolhardy, disrespected, and idiotic. It’s rarely a good sign when the hero of your movie also happens to be the cause of all its conflict. Flik very nearly dooms the colony and for another hour maintains he has the capabilities to help them. Foley can occasionally get a good delivery out of him, but generally he’s not all that likeable and too clichéd for you to care about. And it doesn’t help that the story’s not really interesting either. For one thing, it spends way too much time with the ant colony when we could be exploring more of the larger bug world. Flik’s trip to “the city” was probably the best part of the film, for all the creativity on display and the wide array of insects we’re privy to. I’d have even preferred more time with Hopper’s crew in the desert; the island and all the ants become monotonous after a while. The crux of the story is the ants’ overcoming their subservience to the grasshoppers but does it really expect the audience to believe that until the climax of this movie, not one ant realized they had the strength in numbers. Somehow I doubt Flik is the particular genius here. And then there’s the issue that I overlooked as a kid, but bugs the hell out of me now, and that’s the inaccurate details. Most of the bugs in this movie look nothing like the real insects they’re based on (have you ever seen a blue or purple ant? Or one that could fly?), but it’s the scale of them to each other that’s really noticeable. This film portrays a praying mantis, rhinoceros beetle, and caterpillar as only slightly larger than ants when in fact they’re a lot bigger. There’s a scene where they’re chased around by a robin, and I couldn’t help but note that’s the size the grasshoppers should be to them. I feel like A Bug’s Life ignored these details to make their characters cute and, let’s be honest, more marketable -because no bug looks good. It’s one of the things I was very glad to see Antz get right.
          Speaking of Antz; while that film starred big names like Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Sylvester Stallone, Jennifer Lopez, and Christopher Walken, this films’ cast was just as star-studded for the time. Half the voice actors in this film were huge TV stars in the late 90’s: Foley, Julia Louis-Dreyfus of Seinfeld, David Hyde-Pierce of Frasier, Brad Garrett of Everybody Loves Raymond, and Richard Kind of Spin City. And it is a talented cast. But Louis-Dreyfus though funny here and there, is wasted as Princess Atta, a role not befitting her comic brilliance. Phyllis Diller voices the Queen, and a young Hayden Panettiere is more than a little annoying as the little princess Dot. Her relationship with Flik is meant to be endearing, but it never quite takes off, probably due to the rock/seed analogy never wholly making sense. Kevin Spacey is great as Hopper though, who might be the most engaging character in the film purely for Spacey’s performance. He’s intimidating enough, cunning and cruel, but also charismatic.
          My favourite characters as a kid were the circus bugs …and that’s pretty much not changed. They’re a diverse assortment of characters, voiced by comedic talents, the jokes that work usually come from them, they have the most personality, and the idea of them being circus bugs is clever. Denis Leary is probably the most emphasized as Francis the ladybug, whose wisecracking and short temper makes it obvious he was meant to be the Mr. Potato Head of this film. Although the one-note joke about him being mistaken for a female because he’s a ladybug isn’t funny. Hyde-Pierce gets a few laughs as Slim the stick insect. However Garrett’s Dim is less significant than I remember, as is Bonnie Hunt’s black widow Rosie. Jonathan Harris from Lost in Space voices Manny the magician, and the often hilarious Madeline Kahn doesn’t get to be funny as his assistant Gypsy. And then there’s Heimlich, an irritating caterpillar, whose voice is provided by the late Pixar writer Joe Ranft, and is nothing more than a stupid German stereotype. Mike McShane’s Pillbugs Tuck and Roll, I’m fine with, but Heimlich’s comic relief just really annoyed me. John Ratzenberger though, is a lot of fun as P.T. Flea, the eccentric circus owner. And Kind also makes the most of his material as Hopper’s pathetic brother Molt. Edie McClurg and Alex Rocco are recognizable as minor characters. So is the great Roddy McDowell, in what was apparently his last movie role. 
          A Bug’s Life is rife with horrible plot devices and lazy exposition, like Flea’s introduction of his acts, or Dot conveniently overhearing Hopper’s exact plan for the Queen. Another one is the liar revealed cliché, where Flik upon learning he’s recruited circus bugs keeps up the façade until it’s exposed, resulting in his banishment. It’s a really needless device too and I don’t understand why the colony doubts their fake bird plan will work just because its composers turn out to be circus performers. It’s not like the plan involved much warrior skill. And the bad jokes in this movie are really bad, a good percent of them being just insect-related puns. After all that well-written humour in Toy Story, why does the next Pixar movie have Slim mugging “slap-stick”? Oh, and like Toy Story, this movie has a shameless Lion King plug when Hopper equates the ants’ role as “one of those circle of life things”.
          There are jokes in this movie I like though, such as the fallen leaf completely freaking out the ants, or the mosquito ordering O-positive blood as a drink. Actually, quite a few of the good jokes are in the city scene, like when the troupe performs a Robin Hood act and later emerge striking an Arthurian pose. And a bit where a poor mosquito sits on a corner with a sign reading “kid pulled my wings off”. That stuff’s really funny, and indicative of what could have been done with this premise. I love the circus bugs’ reaction to the kids’ way too graphic depiction of their war with the grasshoppers. Some of the action scenes are decent, like the initial robin attack, and there’s a great grim entrance of the grasshoppers when they come the second time, which is really built up well. I also like the scene where Hopper demonstrates the power of a colony of ants rising against them. The climax is done okay; I love seeing the rain from the bugs’ perspective. Hopper’s death disturbed me as a kid and it still is just the right kind of disturbing -I think because of how brutally naturalistic it is. This movie cuts down the Randy Newman from Toy Story to just a bland song in the end credits, and it also starts the Pixar trend of easter eggs by depicting the Pizza Planet truck next to the lone trailer. The weird bloopers in the end credits, where they animate outtakes of the characters, aren’t very funny, except for one that reveals the crazed Thumper is really voiced by Squiggy. 
          But at the end of the day, A Bug’s Life is really not a good movie. Though it has its moments and as far as lesser Pixar movies go, it’s one of the better ones, it’s a poor follow-up to Toy Story. The bland to unlikeable characters, wasted opportunities, bad jokes, dumb clichés, and prioritizing marketing over details (something which evidently worked, as my brother and I had a ton of Bug’s Life merchandise), hurts this movie tremendously. As horrible as the situation regarding the creative ownership of the animated story about bugs is, if Jeffrey Katzenberg did steal the idea, at least he made a better movie with it.

          Geri’s Game is the short about the old man playing chess in a park with himself. He has a kind of multiple personality disorder, which looking back feels like Gollum and Smeagol from Lord of the Rings. After losing a lot of pieces playing as white, Geri tricks his other self by rotating the board when he’s not looking, and getting him in check mate as black. The prize of this game: his own pair of dentures. This is quite a good short for a couple reasons. It’s very well animated and it’s also very funny. I like how the other personality seems to be younger and spryer, distinguishable by how he doesn’t need Geri’s glasses. I also like in inhabiting both personalities, Geri is able to lose track of which side he’s playing as, or maybe that’s subconsciously intentional. There’s actually something of a psychological study to be had with this short. But that’s not its’ purpose. Its’ purpose is to be cute, funny, and likeable, and that’s exactly what it is. Geri is voiced by animator Bob Peterson who would go on to voice a number of characters in Pixar movies, though curiously not Geri himself when he’d appear in Toy Story 2. This short also won the Oscar in 1998, so it’s definitely a good one worth revisiting.

Next Week: Toy Story 2 (1999) 

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