A Bug’s Life
Perhaps A Bug’s Life would play better if if hadn’t come so soon after Antz, but not much better. Though the films were clearly developed and made around the same time, this Disney/Pixar animated feature almost feels like a copy of the earlier DreamWorks movie. A Bug’s Life has the same wisecracking dialogue, the same basic plot (a wimpy ant helps his colony defeat a vicious tyrant, though here the villain is a grasshopper instead of a military ant), a similar look, a comparable theme (in both, an evil character says something like “Ideas are dangerous”), even some of the same gags. And, like Antz, this film doesn’t even have musical numbers — a surprising departure for Disney animated movies.
The problem is that, even if Antz didn’t exist, A Bug’s Life would still be eye-catching but immediately forgettable. This is the second feature by John Lasseter, who directed Disney/Pixar’s wildly popular Toy Story, which left me cold. Halfway through A Bug’s Life, I began to yearn for the relative simplicity of Toy Story. The movie is always teeming with movement and color, but you never quite forget that the insect heroes are ready-made toys. The characters in Antz were like wiry action figures; the Bug’s Life menagerie are more like Beanie Babies.
The hero is Flik (voice by Dave Foley), a dreamer whose schemes don’t impress his fellow ants, who are too busy gathering food for seasonal offerings to the fascistic grasshoppers. Led by the malicious Hopper (Kevin Spacey, whose voice work here lacks his usual deadpan cool), the grasshoppers have terrorized the ants into keeping them well-fed. Flik has an idea: He’ll leave the colony and search for bigger bugs to help the ants fight their oppressors. He finds a group of rowdy critters he thinks are warrior bugs, but are actually circus performers: a black widow (Bonnie Hunt), a macho ladybug (Denis Leary, not as funny as you’d expect), a plump and bumbling caterpillar (Joe Ranft), and so on.
What follows is all very cutesy and lightweight, without the verbal wit of Antz or the visual splendor of James and the Giant Peach. The landscapes, framed in ostentatious widescreen (for a movie about bugs?), are exquisitely detailed, and a few of the touches have comic ingenuity. But again, as with Toy Story, I felt both locked out of the narrative and locked inside the claustrophobic, untouched-by-human-hands look of the movie. John Lasseter doesn’t really create a world and let you enter it. He programs a world and then surrounds you with it, aggressively.
The plot, involving the creation of a fake bird meant to scare the grasshoppers away, leads nowhere. It’s as if the moviemakers needed a way to get the other ants involved in their own destiny — otherwise this is a movie about characters who can’t handle their problems and have to recruit outside forces. (Nobody points out that, having been scared off, the grasshoppers will probably come back again.) A Bug’s Life doesn’t merit much enthusiasm or indignation; it just skitters across your consciousness, leaving no traces except a vague depression. A lot of people put in a lot of hours on this, and for what? The movie will certainly sell toys and hamburgers, but it won’t endure as a work of fantasy. For that, it needs a vision that extends beyond the Disney boardroom.