Making a Mountain Out of an Anthill
Surprise and pleasure come wrapped together in A Bug's Life. This big adventure about tiny critters is the latest piece of robust whimsy from Pixar, the computer-animation studio that broke into features with the 1995 smash Toy Story. It should prove irresistible to children. Toy Story opened up the secret lives of toys in suburban bedrooms; A Bug's Life lets kids peer through a fun-house microscope into the world beneath their feet. For adults, experiencing this film is like watching a bunch of nieces and nephews play with model kits and dolls -- and discovering that the kids are little geniuses.
Using their own ravishing brand of 3-D animation, the Pixar artists realize their characters so vividly and totally that no matter how old you are, the movie makes you feel as if you're fiddling with action figures in your head. You're charmed at the sight of the industrious food-gathering ants. You're amazed at the horrors of the grasshoppers who pilfer from them. You're amused and enchanted at the shenanigans of the oddball insects who side with the ants -- a traveling troupe of performers that includes a rhino beetle and a walking stick. When the wisecracks, plot twists, and visual jokes fall into place and click, the result is convulsively entertaining. The moment when Slim the walking stick uses himself to define slapstick will remind the most morose stick-in-the-mud what it's like to be tickled all over.
A Bug's Life, a Disney release, focuses on a misfit ant who ends up saving his colony. So did Antz, the recent computer-generated cartoon made at the PDI studio for DreamWorks under the guidance of former Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg. That's where any similarity ends. Antz is a brown, limp Bananas (1971); it glues early Woody Allen comedy (and the voice of Woody Allen) to a confused satire of working-class revolution and feeble burlesques of other movies, including those of DreamWorks honcho Steven Spielberg. The images in Antz are repetitive and claustrophobic even when the action takes place in the great outdoors.
A Bug's Life is the film that has the high-flying fancy of Spielberg at his E.T. (1982) best. (The earliest title for E.T. was A Boy's Life.) Flik (voice of Dave Foley), the enterprising ant at the heart of the movie, explodes the horizon of Ant Island in his quest to free ants from the menacing grasshoppers -- roustabouts who get loaded at a nearby bug cantina, then terrorize the ants into supplying them with more than half their harvest in an annual "offering" of nuts and grains. These 'hoppers are a cross between Hell's Angels and the peasant-bashing banditos Eli Wallach led in The Magnificent Seven (1960). Flik recruits his own Notorious Nine to combat them; unfortunately for the colony (if not for us), they turn out to be circus bugs, not gunslingers.
The Disney studio already fashioned this film's core story when it transformed Aesop's "The Grasshopper and the Ants" into a "Silly Symphony" short back in 1934. In its own corkscrew fashion, A Bug's Life is also based on the fable about the grasshopper who sings the summer away without storing food for the winter. In Aesop and the Disney short, the grasshopper begs the ants for provisions when the weather changes. The self-reliant ants may be the moral center of the tale, but the grasshopper wins the audience's sympathy. My fondest memory of the Disney cartoon is the antihero warbling "The World Owes Me a Living."
But in A Bug's Life, directors John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton seduce the audience into adopting an ant's-eye view of the universe. The opening food-gathering sequence is witty and enthralling. In the light-streaked atmosphere of Ant Island, even the roughest surfaces shimmer. It's not as if you're over the rainbow; it's more like you're inside a rainbow. And the workers moving in single file to unload kernels of grain instantly captivate the audience. When an errant leaf blocks them, the line commander orders a trembling ant to stare at him while circling around it, like a counselor guiding a panicky camper across a rope bridge. The leaf, we're told, can't compare to the disastrous "Twig of '93."
Arriving in time for Thanksgiving, A Bug's Life is a celluloid horn of plenty. The CinemaScope screen spills over with deep colors, balletic movements, and recognizable yet quirky characterizations -- none more indelible than the bad guys. There isn't a single melodious singer among them: The grasshoppers here are snarling scavengers. Their leader, Hopper (Kevin Spacey), ferociously defends his place in a Darwinian scheme -- birds eat grasshoppers, grasshoppers exploit (if not eat) ants. Flik, a would-be young Tom Edison, must inspire the other ants to burrow out of their increasingly dangerous rut. He inadvertently sabotages their yearly offering to the grasshoppers when he experiments with a self-made harvester. But this crisis ultimately loosens up the food chain. Aesop's original story asks us to control our impulse to play, but that concept is Greek to the makers of A Bug's Life. Flik's appetite for fantasy and fun enables him to secure his colony's future.
A Bug's Life salutes the smart kid no one thinks is smart and does so without putting down the rest of the colony. The Queen (Phyllis Diller) is a wise old ant who has her hands full calming Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) before the arrival of the grasshoppers. "It's the same every year," the Queen tells Atta, with the bored air of a hostess at an obligatory event. "They come, they eat, they leave." Atta is as insecure as Flik, but she has to play a regal role. In fact, every major character in the movie needs to do a certain amount of play-acting, and most of it is joyful.
This is the kind of picture that's in love with show biz, like, say, Annie Get Your Gun (1950). But it's not a musical; it's a baggy-ants comedy. There is no gratuitous song to goose the action. The film stays focused on Flik's efforts to recruit "tough bugs" to battle the grasshoppers. When Flik, in full hiking regalia, hitches a ride on a dandelion puff, he's got the same giddy combination of desperation, awkwardness, and grace that Buster Keaton had when he hung on to a hot-air balloon in The Balloonatic (1923). And the picture grows more gloriously Keatonesque as it goes along. Flik hits a juicy dump known as the City, and mistakes that aforementioned group of failed circus bugs for freelance warriors. They mistake him for a talent scout. The result is a series of delightful and hair-raising riffs on the military and theatrical definitions of "knocking 'em dead."
Lasseter has called this movie "truly an epic of miniature proportions." It's a spectacle with a cast of hundreds and one and a half dozen rounded characters. Because they keep their critters moving, the Pixar craftsmen minimize anything saccharine or homiletic. The circus bugs are comic action figures descended from Chaplin as well as Keaton. Their showcase sequences have the same Rube Goldberg blend of unpredictability and inevitability that Chaplin gave big-top catastrophes in The Circus (1928), particularly the botched circus act that results in the accidental burning of the ringmaster P.T. Flea (John Ratzenberger). In addition to Slim the walking stick (David Hyde Pierce), the troupe includes a decrepit magic act featuring an oracular praying mantis (Jonathan Harris) and his voluptuous gypsy-moth wife and assistant (Madeline Kahn), as well as a sadly mild animal act with a rhino beetle aptly named Dim (Brad Garrett) and a black widow spider (Bonnie Hunt). Also scuttling through are a couple of Hungarian pillbox acrobats, Tuck and Roll (Michael McShane), who look like 3-D graffiti and grumble in some Middle European form of jabberwocky. They connect to the primal roots of slapstick. So does a ladybug who happens to be an irascible macho man (Denis Leary), and a caterpillar named Heimlich (story supervisor Joe Ranft) who speaks as if he always has a leaf in his mouth -- a voice stuck somewhere between a gurgle and a yodel.
The Pixar team's supercharged enthusiasm acts as an aesthetic disinfectant even on characters who at first glance are too kitschy-koo, like Atta's kid sister Dot. She comes off as a little steam engine that can, thanks partly to Hayden Panettiere's piping vocal performance and partly to the Pixar team's own predilection for energetic myths-within-myths. Dot, Flik's biggest fan, is the ringleader of the Blueberries, an ant-colony variation on the Brownies. Their after-school pageant dramatizing what they predict will happen to the colony -- the visiting bugs will vanquish the grasshoppers -- is the film's comic high point. The Blueberries paint gore and good-guy casualties on their backdrop just to heighten the realism.
The youthful Pixar filmmakers are as confident and innovative as the Blueberries. Seventy years ago, when the talkies arrived, the silent comedians who are the Pixar artists' true mentors often couldn't adjust to the dense new world of picture and sound. But Lasseter and company are themselves the pioneers of a new digital age. Without peers in speed and audacity, they're willing to pivot a scene on any single tool in their arsenal, from the sudden burst of color in a gypsy moth's wings to the vertiginous shifts in perspective when Flik grabs on to that dandelion puff. In a sense everything in this film is mechanical, and everything in it is also personal. That's why it conjures such a wide range of emotion: The grasshoppers are risible when they drunkenly carouse around a cantina, repulsive when they plummet into the ants' stronghold.
Lasseter and Stanton and the rest of the animators and gagsmiths use the computer with staggering imaginative freedom. It's as if their collective unconscious were the hard drive. They may need to see a movie as an assemblage of interlocking parts in order to channel their bounding creative energy. Even more than Toy Story, A Bug's Life is that archetypal American creation -- a lyrical contraption.
A Bug's Life.
Directed by John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton. Written by Andrew Stanton, Donald McEnery, and Bob Shaw, from a story by Lasseter, Stanton, and Joe Ranft. With the voices of Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Denis Leary, David Hyde Pierce, Bonnie Hunt, Hayden Panettiere, and Phyllis Diller.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.