There are several reasons that, of the two bug movies this year, I was rooting for Antz. Casting Woody Allen in a cartoon was a stroke of genius, and it showed that the cartoon would not pander to kids at the expense of entertainment for adults. Also, Antz was put out by DreamWorks, which is not associated with Disney. It’s nice to see someone give The Mouse a run for His money.
But as much as I liked Antz, I have to admit that A Bug’s Life is better. It is not just clever, it is imaginative. There are some genuinely inventive scenes that only an ant could have dreamt up. The people at Pixar must have worked hard at having so much fun.
Did You Notice?
The film introduces us to a certain colony where the grasshoppers are running a protection racket. If the ants fail to feed them, the grasshoppers will do violence. So the ants gather twice the food they need, half going to the grasshoppers.
One ant, Flik (Dave Foley), spends his time inventing instead of gathering. While showing his picking machine to little Dot, the invention goes haywire and spills the piled grasshopper food into the pond. When the hoppers show up, they are steaming mad and they increase their demands and their threats.
The royal court has seen Flik mess things up before, so when he proposes to leave the colony in search of aid, they gladly accept. Any plan that involves him leaving is okay with them.
Flik makes it to the strange and cruel city peopled by hustlers and beggars (including one vet who had his wings pulled off by some kid – and people say Babe 2 was dark!). In a seamy tin can Flik encounters a mismatched group of bugs who appear to be just the toughs he was looking for. He asks for their help and they agree.
The mercenaries are actually a Fellini-esque troupe of starving performers, but Flik thinks they are fighters. The actors think Flik is going to pay them to perform, not fight grasshoppers. Eventually things get straightened out, but by then, there is no time. The colony will have to make do with what it has.
Necessity is the mother of invention. Screenwriters John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton saw the necessity from the ants’ point of view, and not from their own. The problem was how to beat the grasshoppers, not how to finish the script. I was amazed that the bugs’ invention was nothing I had seen before. The solution to their problem (forgive me for not giving it away) was truly original, and not recycled from dozens of other children’s screenplays.
Other refreshing examples of the screenwriters’ (and the bugs’) innovation made me chuckle at the creative energy that went into making this film. There was a flute-like instrument, played by several bugs at once, and a second-grade art project — a mural depicting the grisly victory of the ants. There was even a second-grade skit about the ants versus the hoppers. Each of these bumps in the story was a reminder of how important, and how rare, good writing is.
And speaking of writing, I should add that the characters in A Bug’s Life are much better developed than I had feared. When the previews showed an food-obsessed German caterpillar and a macho man ladybug, the one-dimensional warning lights went off. But in fact, these characters were given a little room to spread. Yes, the bugs are caricatures, but they are introduced and developed individually.
In addition to the writing, the look of the film is truly outstanding. I was at first disappointed, after having seen Antz, that the creatures in A Bug’s Life appear to be made of plastic or clay, instead of something more subtle or naturalistic. But on closer inspection, you can see that older ants have wrinkles and pockmarks in their smooth clay surfaces. You can also see some uncanny depth in the irises of the bugs’ eyes. So even though the look is more cartoony than in Antz, it wasn’t any simpler or cheaper.
And when the “camera” moves, the swirling, changing perspective moves with it. There seems to be some trick involved, but I can’t put my finger on it. Perhaps it’s the photographic equivalent of a lens made at tiny proportions. In any case, the handful of dizzying shots where the camera moves are great.
There are lots of tangential comments I could make (see sidebar), but instead I’ll leave you with just this one. In this age of selling out and bottom lines, and after the eyeball-rolling gratuitous picnic scene in Antz, A Bug’s Life contained no product placement.
Enjoy! And don’t miss the “outtakes” during the credits.