Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Bug's Life

Following the game-changing success of Toy Story, Pixar still had something to prove but also won themselves a great deal more breathing room from the heavy executive supervision that plagued (and occasionally helped) their first feature. Demonstrating that the creative team's penchant for grabbing story ideas from interesting places was no fluke, Lasseter and co. decided to adapt a number of films rooted in the great Japanese masterpiece Seven Samurai, specifically its loose parody, Three Amigos! But how is that interesting, one might ask? Well, they transplanted the story into the microcosmic world of ants, a universe so small that the words on the poster were written in lowercase.

Small protagonists set against wide backdrops are a Pixar staple, from toys who make even a child seem a giant to clownfish in the Pacific Ocean to a rat scurrying through the city of Paris to a wee trash compactor with treads that explores outer space. So, the idea of ants scurrying around a world where a blade of grass is proportionate to the size of a tree to a human (thus making the actual tree in the middle of the any colony seem like the Tower of Babel) surely caught the animators' imaginations. As few could argue, A Bug's Life represents a marked step up from the animation of the limited backgrounds of Toy Story: gorgeous green blades rub up against blue skies and fertile soil gives way to cracked, arid riverbeds in dry season. As seen on Pixar's Blu-Ray, A Bug's Life is one of the more visually tantalizing works in terms of its color scheme and large-scale design.

Unfortunately, the beauty of the backgrounds outweighs just about anything else in the picture, from the story to the characters to the design of the characters. Still working with technological limitations, the lack of fine texture in the plant life is excusable, but there are as many ants as blades of grass, it seems, and the shortcuts the animators take with the creatures that move stick out like sore thumbs among the rest of Pixar's spellbinding work across the years. Nobody seems to have a mouth distinct of the rest of the body, each colored in the same color as the body of the character in question with rudimentary teeth. Limbs typically flail, because when they move at a normal speed the animation looks awkward and unfinished.

The story does not have the usual Pixar ambition, either. Even more popcorn-oriented works like Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. have a spark to them, a point-of-view that A Bug's Life lacks. One could go all the way back to 1912 and watch Władysław Starewicz's The Cameraman's Revenge to see a movie about anthropomorphizing bugs (and the director used actual roaches and such for his animation), and the Pixar team only fitfully attempts to build a unique point of view from this angle, choosing instead to insert a number of weak puns and lazily construct a world that looks like our own, albeit made from our scraps. There's nothing about a bug's life that seems so very different from a human's, except Bloody Marys are made with real blood.

Following the Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven/Three Amigos! line, the colony of ants depicted in the film are subject to the harsh rule of grasshoppers, who demand heavy tributes of grain to get them through the winter months, taking most of the harvest each year despite the far larger number of ants. Only one ant, Flik (Dave Foley), a misfit with a knack for thinking up inventions but an inability to make most of them function properly. After his idea for a motorized harvester ends up knocking the stone containing the tribute pile into the lake it overlooks and he subsequently attempts to stand up to the enraged grasshoppers until cowed into submission, Flik seeks to redeem himself by traveling off the island to hire larger bugs to defend the colony when the grasshoppers return.

Instead of finding warriors, Flik inadvertently recruits a band of failed circus performers -- masculine ladybug Francis, high-wire spider Rosie, gigantic rhinoceros beetle Dim, put-upon stick insect Slim, two foreign pill bugs, Teutonic caterpillar Heimlich, praying mantis magician Manny and his wife/lovely assistant Gypsy -- when he mistakes their reluctant altercation in a bar for valiance and strength. When Flik discovers his error after bringing the bugs back to the colony and receiving a hero's welcome, he spends much of the rest of the film covering up the truth so as not to diminish morale and earn yet more scorn.

But then the movie shifts to focus on the colony's feelings of togetherness, surely to build up the suspense to the inevitable fallout from the revelation of the true nature of the "warriors," but Lasseter lets the tension slack, laying the groundwork for a message of standing up to bullies and working together to pull off a plan bigger than any one person (or ant). That's fine and dandy, but even the short length of the film does not allow him to reach the reveal quickly enough to draw any weight from the scene. Worse, this entire plotline comes to feel like nothing more than a typical romantic comedy tale, complete with Big Misunderstanding.

A Bug's Life rallies at the end, when the grasshoppers return and Flik sets aside his self-doubt and inspires the ants to victory. We see the evil Hopper's resolve break when faced with a bird, real or fake, and the ants finally understand their power and how they never needed outside help at all, though they respect and value the circus bugs' contribution. Pixar don't yet have the technology, team size and/or budget for great water effects, but the rainstorm that hits is made convincingly terrifying from the small perspective despite the fact that the water does not seem to leave lasting wetness on what it touches. Yes, the ending is pat, but so is everything else in the movie; at least Lasseter finally injects some blood in the picture for the ants' fight back.

There are aspects of the film I quite admire. It's background animation, of course, which still lingers in my mind and makes a Blu-Ray purchase worth your money despite all the flaws. I also enjoy the idiosyncratic voice cast, from Phyllis Diller as the queen ant to NewsRadio geek Dave Foley as Flik. Though I usually side with the voice actors in their conflict with name stars getting fatter paychecks simply to talk in their normal voices, the choices here are too unique to be stunt casting. And finally, I think the message is great for young kids, who -- let's be honest -- are the target audience of Pixar's films, much as everyone might enshrine them in the annals of the entire medium. No shortage of anti-bully movies exists to my knowledge, but A Bug's Life makes the case for never taking abuse no matter your age.

Still, there is a tedium to this movie absent in nearly all other Pixar movies. The romantic subplot between Flik and Princess Atta detracts from the rest of the story and doesn't have nearly the charm of the other computer-animated ant movie from 1998, Antz (how weird is it that two such movies came out in the same year?). That film did a better job with its neurotic protagonist, more distinctive character animation that was also truer to bug movement while still humanizing the creatures, and just generally more imaginative. I still pop in A Bug's Life from time to time, but it always brings me down a little to watch a Pixar movie and focus only on the "pretty colors."


  1. I bought the Blu-ray of A Bug's Life a few months back. I've always felt it's been curiously maligned. I agree with several of your criticisms, and yet I'd much rather watch this movie than that darling Finding Nemo, which for the most part I find only to be "pretty colors." Ditto Cars. The latter films have sharper animation, yes. But that's a tribute to the evolving technology more than the filmmaking itself. Or so I argue.

    Anyway, I've always had a soft spot for A Bug's Life. I don't think it's terrific -- I'd place WALL-E and Ratatouille at the top of the Pixar heap -- but it's the only Pixar movie I'd dare to call underrated. I think Hopper is one of their better villains, and the scenes that take place under the sombrero are marvelous.

    Back to the Blu-ray ... I was stunned upon rewatching the film at just how awkward and computerized the animations look ... their arms swinging in a curious, clunky unison. Considering how vivid some of the shots are in this picture, it's remarkable to think that the animation is mediocre by today's standards.

    Thanks for revisiting this one.

  2. I agree on Cars, which is the only Pixar film I wish I had just skipped (and seriously, why are they making a sequel?), but I found Finding Nemo's simplicity charming when mashed up with its stunning animation. Maybe it's because I read too much Lester Bangs in my formative years, but I've come to have ridiculous distinctions between simplicity and simple-mindedness, and I think A Bug's Life falls into the latter. I just feel like there's so little to latch onto.

    The animation surprised me as well. I hadn't watched this in at least five years, and even though the Blu-Ray is gorgeous, it really brings out how terrible the character animation is.