This bug's life

With it's much-anticipated follow-up to 'Toy Story,' Pixar conquers in the animated bug battle. Reviewed by Janelle Brown.

By Janelle Brown
Published November 25, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Near the climax of "A Bug's Life," the antagonist -- a myopic, scaly bully of a grasshopper named Hopper -- rallies his gang together to steal the harvest of the local ant colony. "The ants outnumber us 100 to 1. What if they figure that out?" he lectures his assembly of grasshoppers, who have been whooping it up at a speak-easy located under a discarded sombrero. "It's not about food; it's about keeping them in line."

This, of course, means that the grasshoppers are doomed, for the world of animation is one that favors the Davids, rather than the Goliaths. In "Toy Story," it meant the plush toys could take on and defeat the nasty boys next door. "A Bug's Life," the long-anticipated second feature to come out of Pixar's animation studios, follows the same template, substituting ants and grasshoppers for dolls and children. In the real world, size matters; but in the comic fantasylands inhabited by sweet and cheery creatures, the little people can win by sheer ingenuity alone. And that, as Pixar has demonstrated, is the beauty of the movies.

"A Bug's Life" is the tale of Flik, a well-intentioned but bumbling ant who must save his colony from certain devastation at the hands of Hopper's brutal gang of grasshoppers. Hopper has terrorized the ants into submission; each year they must offer up half their food in exchange for being left alone. When Flik accidentally spoils the offering, he enlists a motley crew of bugs from a nearby flea circus to help him ward off the grasshopper revenge. Chaos, comedy and, ultimately, conquest ensue.

It's inevitable that "A Bug's Life" will be compared to Dreamworks' "Antz," released last month. Both films are computer-generated extravaganzas featuring loner ants who must rescue their colonies from near ruin, and there's been a lot of well-documented bickering between Pixar and Dreamworks about who had the idea first. Whatever the case, Jeffrey Katzenberg, at the helm of Dreamworks, rushed the release of "Antz" in order to beat "A Bug's Life" to the box office.

Though the two films share a similar premise and mise en schne, they're utterly different. "Antz" panders to adults, proffering a bleak, dystopic underground world, complete with subversive sociopolitical references and Woody Allen's whining to boot. "A Bug's Life," on the other hand, is a more straightforward situation comedy set mostly in the cheerily bright outdoors, with a small zoo of adorable characters. In "Antz," the ants battled themselves; here, they combat outside threats.

"A Bug's Life" is, in fact, the better movie; more than anything, it just looks incredible. It's impossible not to be utterly blown away by Pixar's animation. The first few minutes of exquisitely rendered scenery -- a long shot sweeping in from the sky toward the ground, past trees and shrubbery, down, down into the grass until you are so close you can see the fibers on each blade and the pebbly texture of the dirt -- are breathtaking. And it just keeps getting better as the movie continues. Everything on the screen has depth and heft, and Pixar's landscapes literally shimmer with detail -- there is so much going on in each frame that it's impossible to catch every sparkling scenario in the corners of the screen. Pixar has created a fascinatingly hyperreal landscape -- something so incredibly alive, yet resembling nothing that exists on this planet.

Unlike "Antz," which used such recognizable voices as Allen, Sharon Stone and Sylvester Stallone, "A Bug's Life" features a lower-profile group of actors: Dave Foley brings Flik to life, Kevin Spacey plays Hopper and Julia Louis-Dreyfus is Princess Atta, the colony's insecure queen-in-training and Flik's love interest. In fact, the most recognizable voice is Phyllis Diller, who plays the queen ant as a caustic grande dame.

But "A Bug's Life" doesn't have to rely on star power. Nor is it really relying on plot, which, when all is said and done, is clichid. (How many times must we see animated movies about an outsider who gains acceptance by saving his superiors?) Instead, it relies on the strength of the compelling creatures it brings to life. There's the chubby German caterpillar Heimlich, who just longs to be a "be-yoo-ti-ful butterfly"; the doe-eyed ladybug Francis, who is "no lady" but a gruff-voiced he-man; the "Blueberry" scout troop of giggling second-grade girl-ants. There's a veritable cornucopia of cuddly tie-in toys here, and Pixar knows it.

If the plot is short on concept, it's high on antics. It's always fascinating to watch the adult world from a tiny point of view, and Pixar exploits this to the fullest, putting the bugs into settings more for their pun potential than any actual relevance to the plot. A bug-zapper is a terrifying hypnotic death-machine; a messy storage barn is a bug city, where slumming flies feast from pu-pu platters and a panhandling grasshopper in the street woefully waves a placard: "Kid pulled my wings off." There is something magical about discovering the purpose in a discarded animal cracker box, or the hidden utility of a dandelion.

That flimsy detritus, which humans take for granted, becomes the weapons the ants ultimately use in their surprisingly violent battle against the grasshoppers. And in this upside-down world, at least, the glory goes to the small cuddly things. Surely a discarded Chinese food carton would never deter a bloodthirsty gang of bullies in the real world -- but "A Bug's Life" makes it look like a pretty proposition.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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