Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Bug's Life

I love when competing movie companies make films that have nearly identical premises and are released around the same time.  Some of my favorite examples include Deep Impact and Armageddon, Dante's Peak and Volcano, Finding Nemo and Shark Tale, The Illusionist and The Prestige, Indiana Jones and Oregon Harrison...the list goes on and on.  In this case, A Bug's Life, the second Pixar animated film, competed directly against Antz, the first DreamWorks animated film.  What does that have to do with the actual movie?  Nothing.  I just like pointing out when movies have twins.  And just like in real life, there's always a good twin and a bad twin.  Which is which?  Well, I don't see anyone in A Bug's Life with a goatee, do you?

A Bug's Life is the story of Flik (Dave Foley) and his attempts to save his colony from some vicious grasshopper bullies, led by the cruel Hopper (Kevin Spacey).  You see, Hopper's grasshopper gang forces the ant colony, led by The Queen (Phyllis Diller) and her heir apparent Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), to pay tribute every year in the form of food.  After offering their tribute, the ants then have to hurry to gather enough food to support themselves over the coming rainy season.  Flik is an amateur inventor who accidentally ruins the tribute and angers the grasshoppers.  As the colony rushes to gather enough food to satisfy Hopper, Flik is sent out on a fool's errand to keep him from accidentally ruining this tribute, too.  His task is to find some fighting bugs that will protect the colony.  He finds some bugs, but, under a mutual misunderstanding, he ends up with a group of circus performers who thought that they were going to perform for the colony, not protect them.  Whoops.

The story clearly borrows heavily from The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven (which makes sense, since it's a remake of Samurai), with the colony being protected by a motley crew facing impossible odds.  Unlike those films, though, this is a kid's movie, so there is a lot less death.  There are a lot more sappy "The More You Know" moments, though.  The film's themes include the contributions of the individual, how size does not equal strength, and the power of numbers.  You might wonder at the wisdom of having a movie point out how important an individual is and then turn around and point out how important it is for a group (that includes that individual) to work together, but that conceptual problem is ignored in the film.  I mean, the points were made more than ten minutes apart --- that's practically a separate movie!

Once again, Pixar does a great job with their voice casting.  Dave Foley as the nervous Flik and a young Hayden Panettiere as little Princess Dot were both particularly good.  Kevin Spacey was imposing as the evil Hopper and Julia Louis-Dreyfus was obnoxiously whiny as the Princess.  The supporting cast was as colorful as ever, with Denis Leary being the standout as the male ladybug, but John Ratzenberger, Roddy McDowall, Brad Garrett, Bonnie Hunt, Madeline Kahn, Phyllis Diller, and David Hyde-Pierce all do good work here.

Being a Pixar movie, the animation is, of course, amazing.  While they weren't ready to pull off any human animation just yet, I liked the way primary writer Andrew Stanton played with his small scale; it's fun for kids to see ordinary things becoming huge dangers for tiny creatures, a la Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and this is one of the film's strengths.  I don't like how obviously indebted the film is to The Seven Samurai, but that's a film buff's gripe when compared to the much more serious issue of the film's lack of emotion.  In the best children's movies, one of the characters has a major epiphany and goes to great lengths to keep what they now realize is the most important thing to them.  A Bug's Life still tries to do that, but it spreads the emotional payoff across several characters (Flik, Atta, Dot, and Denis Leary's ladybug), diluting its effect.

I'm sure that this movie will please most kids.  It's not bad, by any means, but it's lacking the depth that makes movies like this more endurable for adults.  Instead, it takes the easy route for cute jokes (the "outtakes" during the credits are a good example of this), and I was left a little bored.

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