|A Bug's Life|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 20 April 1999|
The story began as a variation on Aesop's "The Grasshopper and the Ants," but the final screenplay (by Andrew Stanton, Donald McEnery and Bob Shaw) went in a wonky direction. An anthill led by the Queen (Phyllis Diller) has for years been forced to pay tribute to a band of marauding grasshoppers, who demand tribute in the form of most of the food the ants can harvest. Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is both looking forward to being queen, and insecure about her abilities to lead all those ants. Flik (Dave Foley) is an imaginative inventor, but his ideas tend to outstrip his abilities, and he's constantly getting into trouble. When the big pile of nuts, berries and seeds is accidentally knocked into the water, the arriving grasshoppers are outraged. Hopper (Kevin Spacey), their ferocious leader, gives the ants until the last leaf of autumn falls to replace the offering.
After the grasshoppers leave, Flik comes up with a bright idea: he goes in search of tough warrior bugs who can beat up the grasshoppers. Unknown to him, though, the bugs he recruits are really refugees from a flea circus that can't even draw flies; the performers think they've been hired to entertain the grasshoppers at a dinner theater.
It's THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN as a slapstick comedy, starring bugs.
John Lasseter co-directed with Andrew Stanton, but based on other Pixar productions, it's probably safe to say that the main guiding force was the outgoing, sunny Lasseter. It just feels like him.
There's a fresh, effervescent quality to A BUG'S LIFE, partly the result of the beautiful, near-pastel color design, but also to the buoyancy of the characters and how they're animated. TOY STORY took place mostly in confined spaces, but A BUG'S LIFE has an epic, sweeping look, set entirely outdoors; there are relatively few scenes even in the anthill.
Not only does the movie feature elements that are hard to do in special effects (and A BUG'S LIFE is really all special effects), such as fire and fog, but toward the end of the movie, the insects are all routed by a drenching rainstorm. Water has always been difficult to do, but here it's scaled-down water; like in ANTZ, water has greater surface tension, and even greater destructive power. The rainstorm is not only brilliantly realized on a technical level, it's frightening.
But of course, all the fabulous technique in the world still requires an outstanding script, and it's here that A BUG'S LIFE has some weaknesses. Basically, we've been here before. Doing THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN on the level of insects and as a comedy is still doing THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN -- we know where the plot is going. Furthermore, in A TOY STORY, the plot was driven by the characters, by Woody's jealousy in conflict with his basic decency, by Buzz's obdurate refusal to accept the idea that he's a toy -- and the despair he feels when he finds out it's true. There's nothing in A BUG'S LIFE on this level of character complexity, although Princess Atta has shadings and depth the other characters lack.
Flik is done by Dave Foley; there's an irrepressible cheerfulness to Flik's voice, matched by the superb, subtle animation, that keeps him Our Hero even when he's surrounded by the wildly colorful circus characters he recruits. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is even better as Princess Atta; we want to see -- and hear -- more of her. Kevin Spacey doesn't seem to be able to fail; here, we can't even see him, and he gives a performance that's genuinely scary -- Keyser Soze on a bug's level.
The circus performers in A BUG'S LIFE are its richest, most memorable element. There's no real leader among the circus performers, but the standouts are probably Francis the male ladybug (Denis Leary), constantly struggles to establish his very manly malehood, despite being cute and adorable and, of course, called a ladybug, Slim (David Hyde Pierce), the stick insect, and Heimlich (Joe Ranft), the gelatinously obese caterpillar.
Any review of the Pixar movies, including this one, could be twice as long and still fail to mention all praiseworthy elements. But basically, while A BUG'S LIFE isn't quite the triumphs that A TOY STORY and its sequel are, but it's a wonderfully entertaining movie, the best "family film" of 1998; it will have a long, long life.
The first DVD of A BUG'S LIFE allegedly contains both the original CinemaScope theatrical version and a pan-and-scanned version -- but only the latter could be accessed on the review disc. However, since the film was created digitally in the first place, Pixar was able to re-frame many of the scenes to include essentially all the principal images from the 'Scope version.
This edition also includes the two sets of "out takes" that ran with the closing credits. This is one of the great wacky ideas in movie history: these are fully-animated "blown takes," goofs, accidents, etc., such as some live-action features have included. And for TOY STORY fans, there's a brief appearance by one of its stars.
The second DVD release is the bells-and-whistles, everything-you-could-want edition of A BUG'S LIFE, but it costs more than this plainer version. If you like the movie rather than love it, this one will probably suit you fine.