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A Bug's Life

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: A Bug's Life

Starring: Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey
Director: John Lasseter
Rated: G
RunTime: 96 Minutes
Release Date: November 1998
Genres: Animation, Kids

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
3½ stars out of 4

When you see "The End" appear onscreen at the conclusion of "A Bug's Life, " stay in your seat, because the show isn't over quite yet. The filmmakers have added a very clever little treat to the closing credits. The rollicking "A Bug's Life" is that kind of movie; so bright, clever and eager to please that it does everything but walk you out to your car. The computer-animated feature, from the makers of "Toy Story," deftly combines comedy, action and razzle-dazzle visuals to produce 94 minutes of pure fun.

Flik ("NewsRadio's" Dave Foley, in a spirited performance) is an ant with a vision. Eschewing the conformity of the colony, he works on various inventions, even as his colleagues roll their eyes at his fanciful notions. They're far more concerned with collecting food for the seasonal payoff to the grasshoppers; thugs who threaten violence if the ants fail to present a sufficient "offering." When Flik accidentally knocks over the bounty, invader boss Hopper (Kevin Spacey) delivers a blistering edict: if the ants don't collect a double-offering, the grasshoppers will wipe out the entire colony.

Anxious to atone, Flik sets out, in "Seven Samurai" fashion, to gather a group of warrior insects to protect the community. He finds what appears to be a formidable assemblage of bugs and convinces them to accompany him home. Unfortunately, there's been a major miscommunication: the "warriors" are in fact a hapless band of circus insects who believe they have been hired to put on a show. When the truth comes out, things look disastrous for the colony, but wait... Flik has another plan!

"A Bug's Life" earns bonus points for its knock-out supporting characters. While the early portion of the film is charming and visually stunning, things really don't kick into high gear until the wonderfully eccentric members of P.T. Flea's Circus make their appearance. The ants are a sweet, but bland, bunch, with only Flik, the Queen (Phyllis Diller), Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and young Dot (Hayden Panettiere) really displaying any individual sparks. Even they pale in comparison with the motley band of circus insects. The group includes a glamorous spider (Bonnie Hunt), Hungarian acrobat bugs Tuck and Roll (Michael McShane), a grumpy, misunderstood ladybug (Denis Leary) and prickly walking-stick insect Slim (a hilarious David Hyde-Pierce).

Best of all is Manny, an aging, narcissistic praying mantis with regal pretensions, played to perfection by Jonathan Harris. When Harris, the villainous Dr. Smith from the old "Lost In Space" TV series, was offered a cameo in this year's big-screen adaptation of the show, he turned it down, sniffing "I don't do bit parts." At the time, I dismissed his words as mere prattling from a egocentric has-been. Who knew that the old ham had a gig this good up his sleeve?

Without minimizing the pleasures of the similarly-themed "Antz," "A Bug's Life" is a much more satisfying film. The production mixes radiant colors, a score that echoes epic westerns, and extraordinary imagination in creating its miniature landscapes. A visit to an insect city is wonderfully realized, with discarded food containers from the human world serving as buildings (and, in marked contrast to "Antz," there is nary a product placement in sight). Following a riotous circus performance, we get a tour of Bugville, complete with a beggar insect sitting on the sidewalk with a sign reading "Kid pulled off wings."

The visuals from the computer graphic wizards at Pixar are nothing less than breathtaking. A scene depicting Flik taking flight, parasailing on a single sprig of a dandelion blossom, is both lyrical and stunning. The detail work in the shot shows just how far computer graphics have come in the three short years since "Toy Story."

Of course, an adventure film can't succeed without a good villain, and Kevin Spacey does terrific work as Hopper, malevolent leader of the menacing grasshoppers, playing the character like a swaggering biker from "The Wild Ones." Listen closely as the grasshoppers prepare to take off and you'll notice that the audio effect boys incorporate the sounds of motorcycles revving up into the background noise. Nice touch.

"A Bug's Life" isn't perfect. The secondary ants are unnecessarily bland and some of the action scenes are too boisterous for their own good, but these are small quibbles. Warm, funny and thrilling, "A Bug's Life" represents a powerful stride for computer animated films, as well as yet another triumph for the alliance between Disney and Pixar Studios. Get ready for one of the best films of the year and don't forget to stay for the closing credits.

Incidentally, "A Bug's Life" is preceded by "Geri's Game," a delightful Pixar comic short about an elderly gent's tricks during a chess game in the park. Sunny, ingenious and very funny, the feature showcases the best computer rendering of the human form to date.

Copyright 1998 Edward Johnson-Ott

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