– Summary –
Director : John Lasseter
Year Of Release : 1998
Principal Cast : Dave Foley, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Kevin Spacey, Hayden Panettiere, Phyllis Diller, Richard Kind, David Hyde Pierce, Joe Ranft, Denis Leary, Jonathan Harris, Madeline Kahn, Bonnie Hunt, John Ratzenberger, Brad Garrett, Roddy McDowell.
Approx Running Time : 96 Minutes
Synopsis: When his colony is constantly threatened by a horde of nasty grasshoppers, one lone ant tries to find help in the form of warrior ants.
What we think : Pixar’s second feature shows no signs of sophomore blues, with a ripping yarn and delightful characters encased in some showstopping animation. A Bug’s Life is an instant classic.
Following up after Toy Story was always going to be the danger film for Pixar. Toy Story had raked in the cash, been the talk of Hollywood for ages, and set the bar for future efforts. In most cases, the pressure to produce a film worthy of following Toy Story would have crippled most studios and creators. Not so Pixar. Thankfully, the next film they made was just as delightful, almost whimsical, and came out here in Australia just a few short months after Antz.
A Bug’s Life follows the tale of Flick, a clumsy, nerdy ant with an Edison complex: constantly inventing things to make society better, but being ignored as a freak by his colony. Yes, A Bug’s Life is set in an ant colony too, although this is by far a more appealing ant colony than the one portrayed in Antz. Okay, so we get that there’s ants here. Now, what does our hero in ABL do or have that’s different than in Antz? Well, he falls in love with the local princess, this time named Atta. Atta, who initially finds Flick and annoyance as he tries to invent things to help with the harvest (more on this in a moment) will no doubt, by the films conclusion, find Flick to be a better ant than she originally thought. This is a given, and you can almost see the story unfold from this point. As the film opens, the colony of ants is harvesting food for a marauding group of grasshoppers, led by Kevin Spacey’s wonderfully voiced Hopper.
The grasshoppers have ordered a certain quantity of food to be stored by a certain amount of time (in this case, before winter) otherwise they have threatened to wipe out the colony. Of course, the smaller and more timid ants work together to do as ordered, thinking that they’re not strong enough or big enough to stand up to the larger insects.
Flick, as an ant who thinks outside the box, doesn’t agree with this, and wishes that the colony was free of the grasshopper’s tyranny. After an incident with the food store, in which all the stored food ends up at the bottom of a giant puddle, ruining it, Flick is charged with finding a group of warrior bugs to come to the colony and defend the ants against the larger grasshoppers. This, however, is a fudge plan, a way to get rid of the accident-prone Flick while the colony attempts to gather more food in time for the grasshoppers arrival. Flick heads off on his mission, and enters the big bug city. Here, he bumps into a group of circus bugs, whom he mistakenly thinks are warrior bugs (in one of the films more creative scenes!). The circus bugs think Flick is an agent of some kind, seeking to book their services at his colony, and under these two false impressions, they join together and return to the colony.
Of course, the mistaken identity soon becomes uncovered by both parties, and the fallout threatens the very existence of the colony. Flick and Atta, along with the circus bugs, manage to rally around the colony (and the colony around them) and together, with the help of a magnificent fake bird swing aflame from a tree branch, they drive the grasshoppers away.
A Bug’s Life has the advantage over Antz in several ways. First, the inordinate talent behind the microphone would make any Hollywood agent collapse from asphyxia. Dave Foley, best known to Australian audiences for his appearance on US sitcom NewsRadio, plays Flick, and gives the character a nervous, twitchy enthusiasm for life, which is in stark contrast to almost all the entire colony. Seinfeld alum Juia Louis-Dreyfuss pitches Atta at just the right level of annoyance, annoying, cowardice and frenetic energy the character requires. Alongside them are Hollywood heavyweights such as the aforementioned Kevin Spacey, David Hyde Pierce (Frasier’s brother on Frasier), Phyllis Diller, Hayden Pannettiere (recently starring in TV super-hit Heroes), Brad Garret (from Everybody Loves Raymond and ‘Til Death), Madeline Kahn, Denis Leary (in his best role ever!) and Lost In Space bad-boy Jonathan Harris.
The second advantage A Bug’s Life has is it’s clean, fresh animation style. Advancing technology meant a more versatile style than Toy Story, with better textures and lighting, more stunning visual effects, and a great aesthetic overall that makes watching ABL a pure joy. Unlike Antz, with it’s strangely textured characters inhabiting a dank, slightly soulless world, ABL managed to make living as an ant feel like fun. The sense of joy that sparkles from every frame is a magnificent achievement, and were it not for this film’s success soon after Toy Story, perhaps Pixar may have had to rethink their options. The colours are vibrant, the way the sunlight makes everything seem so bright and shiny: you’d think things would be a little grubbier down in the ant patch, but apparently, in Pixarland, it’s not.
As mentioned many, many time in many, many places, with Pixar, story is king. If a scene or sequence doesn’t move the story along, it gets cut. This reliance on the old adage that people would watch paint dry as long as the story was good holds true. Actually, I don’t think that’s an adage of any kind, but it sounded okay when I thought of it. Still, the point remains true: a good story will outweigh almost everything else. If you can’t get your audience invested in the characters, then there’s no amount of flashy effects that can rescue you. George Lucas learned this the hard way. In fact, there’s some doubt he learned it at all. Still, alongside Antz, ABL has a very similar theme: conformity and breaking out from the mould. Flick is a non-conformist, an inventor cum philosopher, who imagines a day when the grasshopper will no longer be a problem and the colony will live peacefully and free of fear. He is always bucking the trend of thinking about the colony first, and this brings him into conflict with the normal way of thinking (as an ant).
How does the film stack up compared to other Pixar films? Why even ask: even today, years after it’s release, it is still a magnificent film to watch, both visually and story-wise. The animation is just as good as anything getting about today, although perhaps not having the effect-driven flair of Shrek 2 (crikey, did they love the particle program on that film or what?) or even the layering and texturing done on more recent Pixar output such as Wall-E or Ratatouille, A Bug’s Life still manages to entertain and draw you into itself, without appearing dated or clunky. And that is a sign of a truly awesome film.