Toy Story was the biggest thing for animation since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. No, it didn’t get nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, an award that even Walt Disney himself never received, but it was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Writing, which is a testament to how Pixar was dethroning Disney—with substance. A Bug’s Life had a lot to live up to, and… unfortunately, it didn’t live up to them. I think that’s why it’s not as well-regarded, but it is a decent film.
The Not-So Unique Premise
One word: Antz.
Okay, but let’s be fair about this. In the whole feud between Pixar and DreamWorks, I buy Pixar’s side of the story. I think Katzenberg did get screwed over by Disney, but that does not justify stealing Lasseter’s idea for an animated film about bugs. If what I said didn’t make any sense and sounds interesting, then I suggest Google. This is all I’ll personally say on that issue.
The reason why A Bug’s Life fails to amuse me with its somewhat unique premise is because it does nothing to contribute to the adventure. Let’s face it: this movie could’ve been done with human actors, with an action camera, with animated fish, with animated cars… with just about anything. The story is about a protagonist who doesn’t fit in with society and eventually changes that society for the better. Does that make you want to direct an animated movie about bugs? I don’t know, I kind of see what they trying to do with the ant society, but I’ll suggest a better alternative.
What makes the predictable adventure watchable are two things: the characters and the visuals. There are just so many different characters, and I don’t mean it in a bad way. From the two rollie pollies (my favorite of the circus insects) to a fat caterpillar who turns into a butterfly (sort of), Pixar does manage to entertain with its insect world. The ant hill? Not interesting. The grasshopper club? Not interesting. The insect city? Freakin’ awesome. I wish the whole movie was set here, but the circus of insects that follows Flik back home is interesting enough.
Also, I love how big every blade of grass is, how frightening a rain storm is, and just experiencing our Earth from a bug’s point of view. Pixar simply gets the scale of it right, and the colors really pop. It’s bright and vast when it needs to be bright and vast, and it’s dirty and claustrophobic when it needs to be dirty and claustrophobic. From a visual standpoint, A Bug’s Life is an upgrade from Toy Story.
The Pixar Moment
A Bug’s Life adheres to the Pixar formula and tries to have a Pixar moment, but it comes off as obligatory. It happens when our ant protagonist, Flik, is revealed to have brought a circus of bugs instead of a group of warrior bugs to fight the grasshoppers who oppress the ants. At first, I thought I had this movie pegged: it was going to be about hope. About how even false hope can be better than no hope at all, as it gave the ants joy they never had once felt before. But no, it resorts to conventionality and makes the story about accepting new ideas. Not… interesting. The story should have been about hope. That would’ve made the Pixar moment.
Now, the climax is actually good, not from a substance standpoint, but from a style standpoint. Although I found the car chase in Toy Story immensely entertaining, the quality of it sort of degraded the experience. I don’t know, the dog looked a little funky, and while Pixar did a good job making the dog an intimidating creature for the little toys, the cars did not make their presence felt. The bird is perfect. I’m not just talking about the bird that eats the villain (surprisingly gory, by the way). I’m also talking about the bird Flik makes to scare the grasshoppers. Once again, the physics of it all is fabulous, even in its fictional context. Not to mention, when Flik gets beat up by the villain, it’s pretty emotional. But we all knew what was going to happen. Pixar wasn’t going to make this a sad ending, and I’m not asking for it. What I am asking is something that’s less predictable and less generic. I think what should’ve happened was a grasshopper victory. Then only would the ants appreciate the hope Flik gave them, even if it was hopeless, for a life with no hope is a life not worth living at all.
A Bug’s Life, with any decent film, brings some good with the bad. The good? The characters: the circus bugs are genuinely funny. The visuals: the birds are fantastic; the ant city entertains.
The bad? The story is generic and contrived; well done, but still too simple for my liking. I mean, come on, the ants put their hard summer work out in the open where wind, rain, or birds can knock it over just so that Flik gets in trouble? Contrived! While I prefer 2D animation over 3D animation, mainly because I can feel the animator’s heart behind the drawings, I really sensed the heart of the human storytellers behind Pixar’s script. That is sorely lacking in A Bug’s Life.
Final Grade: B- (80%)—seemingly manufactured: looks great, makes no mistakes, has no heart.