Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Bug's Life (1998) - A Bug-fest for Disney/Pixar

A Bug's Life: Pixar's Most Underappreciated Gem

A Bug's Life
"A Bug's Life" (1998).
Looking to follow up on the epic (and unexpected) success of "Toy Story," Pixar dreamed up this inventive tale about insects called "A Bug's Life" (1998). Coincidentally, Dreamworks also came out with a tale centered around bugs that same year, so it was an antenna-to-antenna battle to see who would come out on top in the bug wars. While opinions certainly differ on the quality question, financially it was no contest: "A Bug's Life" grossed almost twice as much as "Antz," despite the fact that it was loaded with TV actors as opposed to top movie stars like Woody Allen and Gene Hackman in "Antz." This cemented Pixar's reputation and proved the key link in its legendary chain of hits which ultimately led to its takeover by Disney.

Some bugs in A Bug's Life
Some bugs just hangin' around.
Directed by Pixar veterans John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton, "A Bug's Life" introduces us to Flik (Dave Foley).  He is an ant who likes to invent things. Despite being very creative, he is unliked by the other ants.

Dave Foley as Flik in A Bug's Life
Dave Foley and his character, Flik.
Flik endangers the entire ant colony by managing to ruin an event that routinely goes off without a hitch. Grasshoppers visit Flik's anthill ("Ant Island") every spring to eat all of the food the ants have collected in an event called "The Gathering." It is a protection racket that nobody questions. Flik, however, loses that year's offering in the river, and head grasshopper Hopper (Kevin Spacey) gets upset. He gives the ants until the fall to gather more seeds for his gang as food or he will kill the ants and eat them instead.

David Hyde Pierce as Slim in A Bug's Life
David Hyde Pierce as Slim.
The ants hurry to comply with Hopper's ultimatum. In order to redeem himself and impress his love interest, Princess Atta (Julia Louis Dreyfuss), Flik decides to try and rid the ants of the grasshopper threat once and for all. Atta allows him to venture out to recruit mercenaries to fight the grasshoppers so that he won't be around to mess up the next offering to Hopper.   Through a series of misunderstandings, instead of warriors, Flik winds up with a group of unhappy bugs who have just been fired from a flea circus.  It then comes down to Flik and these decidedly non-warrior actors to figure out a way to fight off the dreaded grasshopper gang.

Denis Leary as Francis in A Bug's Life
Denis Leary as Francis.
There is good character development, with the circus bugs having wacky idiosyncrasies: a caterpillar who can't wait to be a butterfly, a ladybird who gets mistaken as a girl, a pair of woodlouse who can't speak any English, praying mantis Manny (Jonathan Harris from "Lost in Space"), and so on.

Dot hugging a plant in A Bug's Life
Dot looking scared.
Flick has a number of very funny lines that everyone can enjoy, but the film is aimed at a younger audience than "Toy Story."  Even so, Hopper is a very scary character, and some scenes, such as one at the locust hangout, may frighten some children in the audience.

Jonathan Harris as Manny in A Bug's Life
Jonathan Harris as Manny.
The voice actors are, for the most part, comic character actors from shows such as "Frasier" and the like, with the occasional screen legend and promising newcomer thrown in for good measure: Hayden Panettiere as Princess Atta's little sister Dot, Phyllis Diller as the Queen, Richard Kind as Molt, David Hyde Pierce as Slim, Joe Ranft as Heimlich, Dennis Leary as Francis, Madeline Kahn as the Gypsy Moth, Bonnie Hunt as Rosie, Brad Garrett as Dim, and the ubiquitous John Ratzenberger as P.T. Flea.

Julia Louis Dreyfus as Princess Atta in A Bug's Life
Julia Louis Dreyfuss as Princess Atta.
Dave Foley is likable enough as the lead character, but his voice may put some off as being rather high-pitched.  The story is very straightforward and the pace a bit slow at the beginning, while some might see the overall plot as fairly predictable and bland.

Kevin Spacey as Hopper in A Bug's Life
Kevin Spacey as the evil Hopper.
To claim that the story is a take-off on Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" may be accurate, but it puts this simple animation film in fast company with which it really doesn't belong.  Repeat viewings, though, might improve your opinion of the film, which really is quite clever.

Phyllis Diller as the Queen in A Bug's Life
Phyllis Diller as the Queen.
The critics did not particularly like this film, and there have been no sequels or plans to revisit Ant Island. It thus is easy to label this film a failure, but that is far from the truth. The animation is superb, as you would expect from Pixar. There is a lot of creativity put up on the screen, such as the end credits which have humorous "out-takes" (and which are probably as phony as all the other out-takes you will see elsewhere). Great care is taken to show how normal and seemingly inconsequential aspects of nature, such as raindrops, may seem vastly different to ants and other bugs than they do to us.

DVD Cover for A Bug's Life
The Collector's Edition DVD set.
In a 1999 interview, director and animator John Lasseter (who later became the Big Dog at both Disney and Pixar) talked about some of his "research" for the film:
“In my kitchen, my wife would see some ants and get ready to kill them with the ant spray. I’d say to her ‘Wait a minute’, and end up watching the ants for a long time, seeing how they’d move. My wife would say, ‘Would you just get rid of them?’ and I’d say, ‘No, I’m researching’. I realized when I was watching various ants that we could do that in the movie. Nobody else in any other medium can do ants like we can. We can come up with ways to have a cycle for an ant carrying something, and put different things in his hands and multiply that out. In fact, we have software that even knows the terrain. You can create a path on the terrain, and create a cycle and have this long line of ants. That’s another thing everyone is familiar with. Ants walk in lines, and if you do something, they all scatter. So we used some of the imagery in the movie.”

A frustrated Princess Atta in A Bug's Life
Princess Atta having a bad day.
While critics say that that this does not measure up to "The Incredibles" and "Toy Story," the truth is that very few films do.  The misfortune of "A Bug's Life" is that it has gotten lost in the aftermath of Pixar's string of blockbuster animation pictures. Think of "A Bug's Life" as an overlooked gem. Many will find it very funny, and it is a must-see for fans of animation.

Below is the trailer for "A Bug's Life."


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