Friday, November 26, 2010

Film Review: A Bug's Life

"A Bug's Life" *** (out of ****)

Watching the Disney/Pixar CGI animated film "A Bug's Life" (1998) makes me realize just how impressive the Pixar track record is. Now that I have finally seen this film, I can proudly claim, I have seen all 11 feature films Pixar has released. And I've liked every single one of them.

"A Bug's Life" was Pixar's second feature film coming behind "Toy Story" (1995), the movie that revolutionize animated films. Sadly over the years "A Bug's Life", much like "Cars" (2006, which I have also reviewed) seems to have gotten the short end of the stick. These two films are generally considered Pixar's weakest films. They are the two lowest scoring films on with the least amount of voters. Why has the public turned their back on these wonderful, highly entertaining family films?

As I sat and watched "A Bug's Life" I was amazed. I would even argue "A Bug's Life" was more ambitious than "Toy Story". "A Bug's Life" offered more possibilities for Pixar. It had greater scope. More attention to detail was shown here. Look and watch how much thought went into making the environment look real and to actually supply these various bugs with personalities. Look at the shapes of the leaves and rocks, the ripples in the water, the shadows of the ants. It is a technical marvel.

Back at its time of release "A Bug's Life" was in the middle of a small war which was starting to brew between Pixar and Dreamworks. "A Bug's Life" was released one month after Dreamworks had released their first CGI animated film "Antz" (1998). It has been suggested Dreamworks deliberately released the films so close together as to steal "A Bug's Life"s thunder. I have seen both films and would say overall "A Bug's Life" is the better of the two. Though "Antz" has its own charms. And you have to love Woody Allen's voice work.

"A Bug's Life" is a comedic version of Akira Kurosawa's epic masterpiece "Seven Samurai" (1954). Which wasn't anything new. "A Bug's Life" is also comparable to another comedic re-telling of Kurosawa's classic film, "Three Amigos" (1986) with Steve Martin and Chevy Chase. Here we follow Flik (Dave Foley) a wildly ambitious inventor. Flik is the outcast of the ant colony. He doesn't live by tradition. He sees the world differently. He believes the ants have to change with the times. But ants are simple insects. They don't want to be bothered with change and new ideas. They know their function in society. Their main job is to gather food for the grasshoppers, led by Hopper (Kevin Spacey), before the rain season. This puts pressure on the ants because by collecting food for the grasshoppers it takes away time for the ants to collect food for themselves. But there is always the threat of the grasshoppers stomping on the ants, which in turn keeps them in line. It is a power struggle.

As the ants, headed by their Queen (Phyllis Diller) and her two daughters, Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Dot (Hayden Panettiere), have finished their harvest for the grasshoppers, Flik causes a terrible accident when one of his latest inventions inadvertently knocks down the food supply causing it to fall in the river. Now what will the ants do when the grasshoppers come looking for their food? In order to make up for their lost time Flik suggest they get help. Why not track down warrior bugs to protect them from the grasshoppers so the ants never have to work for them again. Flik even volunteers to find these warriors himself. Flik thinks he has found the answer to his problems when he meets a gang of bugs; Slim (David Hyde-Pierce), Francis (Denise Leary) a masculine ladybug, Gypsy (Madeline Kahn), a gypsy moth, Rosie (Bonnie Hunt) a black widow spider (who has been married 12 times), Dim (Brad Garrett) a dung beetle and Manny (Jonathan Harris) a prying mantis. He hires them to protect the ant colony not realizing these bugs are circus performers who use to work for P.T. Flea (John Ratzenberger).

"A Bug's Life" has a sweet message about community and believing in one's self. Because of all his failed inventions Flik soon believes he is a loser. Incapable of performing a good deed. Atta, who is preparing to take over the colony from her mother, is afraid she will never live up to others' expectations of her. And the ants must learn to stand up to the grasshoppers. If they stick together they can accomplish great things. I guess if there is anything wrong with "A Bug's Life" it is that I felt the heartfelt "lesson" scenes were too far spread out. And I questioned some of the voice work decisions. The choice of Dave Floey struck me as rather odd. Maybe David Hyde-Pierce would have been a better choice, especially given his reputation for playing Niles on the TV show "Frasier", who was himself insecure and timid. I did however like Julia Louise-Dreyfus. I wish she would do more voice over work. And what a pleasure to hear Phyllis Diller, whom I've always thought of has the female Bob Hope.

The movie was directed by John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton. Lasseter directed "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2" (1999) and Stanton directed "Finding Nemo" (2003) and "Wall-E" (2008). It went on to receive an Oscar nomination for its musical score which was done by Randy Newman and a Golden Globe nomination. Despite the movie's perceived disappointing reputation is was a box-office hit grossing more than 162 million, surpassing "Antz". Now that I have seen all the Pixar movies I wouldn't put this at the top of the list but it is still an enjoyable movie and tells its story with much heart, warmth and humor. It is a visual delight as well. "A Bug's Life" has lots of rewards for those willing to give the movie a second chance.