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Despite very funny moments, A Bug's Life isn't nearly a classic

A Bug's Life

Prior to the showing of Disney's A Bug's Life, we got to see a special screening of 1997's Academy Award winner for Best Short Animated feature, Geri's Game. This very short (perhaps 5 minutes) film is charming, funny, and inventive. However, only two of those three adjectives describe the movie that followed. Pixar, the company that produced the wonderful 1995 classic Toy Story (as well as the aforementioned short), follows up with a visually delightful and very funny film. But there is a problem: A Bug's Life does not contain the same charm and uniqueness that made Toy Story such a popular film.

In fact, out of all the family films released this year, only two come to mind that have charm: DreamWorks' Antz and Universal's Babe: Pig in the City. Both of those were also visually delightful (especially the latter film) and were very funny. So where does that leave Disney and Pixar? Well, somewhere in the middle... but not at the box office, where it's bound to rake in the money. Why? Just because it's Disney. Disney is known for it's wide-ranging humor which allows every audience to enjoy their films. Antz had a more focused, sharp, and witty sense of humor. It was a social commentary surrounded by a visually inventive exterior and some high-profile actors. A BUG'S LIFE is the story of repression, conformity, and the so-called way of life. In many ways, it is exactly like Antz. In other ways, it is very, very different.

A Bug's Life begins with ants harvesting food for the upcoming winter season. However, the food being gathered is not for them but for the grasshoppers that demand food every year. These grasshoppers are led by Hopper (voiced by Kevin Spacey), the villain of the film. One ant, Flik (Dave Foley), wants to speed up the process of harvesting, so he invents a device that extracts the seeds from the plants. Unfortunately, this has drawbacks, as the remaining part of the plant is launched away, twice landing on Princess Atta (Seinfeld's Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Atta doesn't exactly care for Flik's zany ideas, and grows to hate him when he accidentally spills the offering for the grasshoppers. Hopper and his gang aren't pleased, and they demand that the food be reharvested. "But then we won't have any time to harvest our own food," the Queen (Phyllis Diller) declares. Hopper doesn't care.

Now, the entire colony is against Flik, especially Atta, who just wants him to go away. But he provides his own solution: get warrior bugs and fight back. Of course, this means leaving the ant colony, and Atta agrees to let Flik go. He does, and quickly he discovers a world of immense proportions (to an ant, anyway). The city is full of tall buildings, lights, and traffic (it looks a lot like New York). He stumbles across a group of bugs who single-handedly defeat (and kill) all sorts of bugs involved in a bar room brawl. Of course, all they really did was provoke them and then pretend to fight. In actuality, they are circus performers who quit after not being able to maintain an audience for a whole show.

The circus bugs are the most inventive of the characters, ranging from a deadpan walking stick to a giant caterpillar with a German accent. Slim, the walking stick (David Hyde Pierce), acts more like a prop than an actual performer. Francis (Denis Leary), a male ladybug, hates anyone who thinks he's a girl just because he's a ladybug. His outside appearance is a big contrast to his wicked personality. Heimlich (Joe Ranft), the German caterpillar, is impatiently awaiting the change from caterpillar to butterfly. Gypsy (Madeline Khan) is a beautiful butterfly who isn't just all looks and no brains. Rosie (Bonnie Hunt) is a black-widow widow. Manny (Jonathan Harris) is an old praying mantis who likes to meditate before performing. Then there's Tuck and Roll (Michael McShane), a couple of pill bugs, and Dim (Brad Garrett), a quiet beetle-like bug (I'm still not sure what it was). Together, they form a troupe of bugs that make all the ants seem boring in comparison.

Oddly enough, despite all the zany characters, something is desperately missing. At first, I couldn't figure it out. But after the film was over, I knew exactly what it was. The screenplay. Is it just me or does Disney like to copy everyone else? And I'm not talking about DreamWorks' Antz, either. I'm talking about ripping off other films and promoting itself as original. Take the plot in which Flik must find warriors to defeat the evil grasshoppers. The warriors turn out to be performers. For some odd reason, this sounds very similar to the very funny Steve Martin film Three Amigos! in which a villager discovers three actors whose films portray them as warriors (though I'm quite sure that filmed took it's plot from 1954's Seven Samurai). Normally I don't mind this, but Disney has a habit of never producing anything very original. Their plots always follow similar patterns--so much in fact that adults will know how it ends before they even enter the theater. You know, one character never quite fits in with the others; he goes out, but then realizes he can help in his own way; tries to help, yet screws up; goes back out, depressed; another character (usually a child) "inspires" him with a metaphorical "gift" (in this case, a rock); hero comes back and saves the day. In fact, it's rather sickening to rehash these plots again and again. Sooner or later, people will get tired of Disney's formula.

Then again, Disney never has been known for originality. They've been known for family fodder, quirky dialogue, and screwy characters that would make great toys. The dialogue is humorous, with lines such as "I can't help it... it's so beautiful!" *ZAP* The slapstick humor (which is even mentioned in the film) provides most of the laughs, but surprisingly, is old and tired. Slapstick humor is difficult to master, but a good example of it being successful is the very recent Babe: Pig in the City, whose ending would have made Buster Keaton proud. But the humor is definitely appropriate for children in A BUG'S LIFE, as they will be able to understand most of the jokes (Antz was promoted by DreamWorks as an adult-targeted animated feature). Still, my friends (all over the target age for the movie) found it extremely funny, so it is more likely that adults will also be able to enjoy the film.

Comparisons to Antz is pretty much a given, but they really do co-exist well. In my opinion, Antz was a supremely better film, full of witty satire and sociopathic humor from Woody Allen. Not only that, but DreamWorks' film had a rich, earthy palette of colors to work with. A Bug's Life has a very impressive visual style, but it seems taylor-made just to create the toys for McDonald's. The bugs look like plastic, especially the ants. Which brings up another critique that's been causing some controversy among critics. The ants themselves are anatomically incorrect with only four legs each. Even young children are quick to point that out (well, the girl behind me did, anyway). But that's really a pathetic criticism when you consider that animators never really stick to proper anatomy (hey, The Simpsons only have four fingers...). Compared to Antz, A Bug's Life utilizes the "camera" more, but the overall impact the images have isn't quite as strong.

The voices here pale in comparison to their counterpart. Dave Foley against Woody Allen? Obviously no kid has ever heard of them, but at least Allen is recognizable. Foley also stars on his smart TV show NewsRadio, but his deadpan abilities aren't utilized here. Julia Louis-Dreyfus (mostly known as Elaine on Seinfeld) doesn't do much, and she really isn't that funny. Louis-Dreyfus' humor is a complete ensemble: without her body, she isn't nearly as funny (but I would have liked to see her character yell, "Get out!" in reference to her famous TV character). Kevin Spacey is the real star of the film, with his maniacal verbalizations. He's really the perfect post-modern villain (however, he doesn't succeed nearly as well as Gene Hackman in the DreamWorks' film). Kudos must also go to David Hyde Pierce, Denis Leary, and Joe Ranft. Pierce is absolutely hilarious, while Leary brings attitude to a bug we'd always imagine as being nice. Ranft steals most of his scenes as the voice of an oversized caterpillar. The rest of the cast is adequate enough to fulfill their characters' vocals.

A Bug's Life is rated G and appropriately so. Being Disney, it doesn't contain anything offensive or anything really terrifying (though I must admit that the death of the villain is rather gruesome). During the final showdown which occurs during the rain, only one bug dies. This kind of happy ending tends to be overly sentimental, and this is no exception. Thankfully, the producers end with a wonderful spoof on the outtakes that plague Jackie Chan films (however, those outtakes are as always funnier than the actual movie). I must admit, when I heard two bug movies were being made, I prayed and hoped that DreamWorks would succeed in defeating the Mouse House. Artistically, they have. At the box office, highly doubtful. What a shame.

*** out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
Movie Reviews