Charles Solomon reviews PIXAR's much anticipated follow-up to Toy Story, A Bug's Life, which is funny, bright and a joy to watch.
Comparisons between A Bug's Life (Disney/PIXAR) and Antz (DreamWorks/PDI) are inevitable, because they are the second and third computer-animated features ever made, because they were created by rival studios and because of the many similarities between the two films. Both stories are set in ant colonies, and both center on a Princess and a schlemiel who save the colony and find each other. But despite their similar premises, Bug's Life and Antz are very different films, and Bug's Life is brighter, broader, better animated and funnier. The Gist of It Flik (voice by Dave Foley) is a square ant in a round hill; he's always trying something new that flies in the face of tradition -- and backfires. Innocent, eager and boyish, Flik often recalls Woody in Toy Story. But Woody was the kingpin of Andy's Room; here, the other ants look down on Flik. No one is less aware of his charms than Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), the insecure heiress to the throne. In a twist on Aesop's fable, these industrious ants have to gather food for the grasshoppers, an entomological motorcycle gang led by Hopper (Kevin Spacey). When Flik inadvertently dumps the food the ants have laboriously gathered under Atta's direction, the grasshoppers demand they amass a second offering, even though it means starvation for the colony. As insect non grata, Flik leaves to find help.
In a nearby bar, he mistakes a troupe of inept "circus bugs," recently sacked by P.T. Flea (John Ratzenberger), for a corps of warriors. The performers include Francis, a cranky male ladybug (Denis Leary); Heimlich (story supervisor Joe Ranft), a chubby caterpillar; the all-but-incomprehensible pillbug-acrobats Tuck and Roll (Michael McShane); Slim (David Hyde Pierce), a put-upon walking stick, and Dim (Brad Garrett), a dumb but well-intentioned rhinoceros beetle. Flik thinks he's found the colony's saviors; the circus bugs think they've found a talent scout. The mountebanks grow too fond of Flik and the ant-children to abandon them when the grasshoppers' return threatens to destroy the colony. The misfits join together, rally the ants to defeat the enemy and renew their self-confidence, in the best cartoon tradition. Energy and Appeal In contrast to the somber, earth-toned palette of Antz, A Bug's Life brims with energizing pastels. Antz has a greater scope that suggests an enormous, underground metropolis inhabited by uncountable hordes of ants. The smaller colony in Bug's Life feels more like a community, with an elementary school, scout troop, etc. The inclusion of school-age characters contributes to the sense that the film is intended to appeal to younger viewers than Antz, although adults will certainly enjoy it.
As the Disney artists discovered when they designed Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio (1940), real insects range in appearance from unattractive to downright repulsive. The cast of Bug's Life has an appealing, round-eyed, cartoony look that allows the artists to animate them effectively. When Flik stumbles into an insect city, one of the characters he encounters is a caterpillar-mime, as bothersome as any human street performer. It's a minor gem of animation that showcases the talent and skill of the PIXAR crew. Bug's Life makes it clear that the PIXAR artists continue to lead the field in computer character animation. Viewers can recognize similar-looking ant characters apart just by the way they move. However, even in their capable hands, computer animation remains less subtle and expressive than top-quality drawn or stop-motion animation. Plus, the characters still look more like plastic toys than living organisms. Of Toy Story Caliber? For all its energy and charm, Bugs Life is less engaging than PIXAR's first feature. Toy Story tapped into a fantasy every child shares -- that their toys come alive when no one's around to watch. Bugs, even cute bugs, are less endearing than familiar playthings. There's no relationship in Bug's Life as compelling as the bond that develops between Woody and Buzz. Dot, Atta's younger sister (Hayden Panettiere), always believes in Flik, but she's a bit too self-consciously cute, like a larval Shirley Temple. At times, Dot feels like she was added to the story to hook little girls into seeing a film that might otherwise be considered a "boy" movie.
Director John Lasseter and co-director Andrew Stanton don't rely as heavily on dialogue as Antz directors Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson, although the characters often talk more than they really need to. In many places, the animation alone is strong enough to carry the story. The rapid-fire gags, brightly colored visuals and constant movement in some scenes gets a bit overwhelming. Every syllable every characters utters is accompanied by a gesture or a change of expression; sometimes it's enough for a character to stand quietly and say what he has to. The breakneck comic chase at the end, with its swooping camera moves and MTV-style editing, goes on too long and wears out its welcome. These minor flaws aside, A Bug's Life is a clever, enormously entertaining film that has "hit" written all over it. This round of the Disney vs. DreamWorks duel goes to Disney -- and PIXAR -- for a technical knock-out. Charles Solomon is an internationally respected critic and historian of animation. His most recent books include The Disney That Never Was (Hyperion, 1995), Les Pionniers du Dessin Animé Américain (Dreamland, Paris, 1996), Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation (Knopf, 1989; reprinted, Wings, 1994) and The Prince of Egypt: A New Vision in Animation (Abrams, 1998). His writings on the subject have appeared in TV Guide, Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times, Modern Maturity, Film Comment, the Hollywood Reporter, Millimeter, the Manchester Guardian, and been reprinted in newspapers and professional journals in the United States, Canada, France, Russia, Britain, Israel, the Netherlands and Japan.
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Editor's Notebook: November 1998