Now that high-definition TV is here coupled with 46-inch
projection screens, pictures within pictures and attached DVD
players, you're likely to hear the old saw over and over: "The
technology is great. Too bad there's still nothing on." Apply
the same idea to the Internet, and what do you get? "People
from the Bronx are e-mailing comrades in Siberia, but nobody
has anything worthwhile to say." Now we have a movie that
runs on the same track. "A Bug's Life" is Pixar animation
carried to new marvels of technological excellence: in just
three years the razzle-dazzle that made its debut with "A Toy
Story" has exceeded all expectations. But to what end? "A
Bug's Life" has dialogue that will tire adults who were
intellectually challenged by the colloquy in "The Waterboy."
And the verbal exchanges are bound to be of little appeal to
the tots who will form the majority of its audience. One of
this movie's rare pieces of vocal wit comes from a circus
worker who says of one ant in the show, "He had the lead in
'Picnic'." Consider the banal punch line to the villainous
grasshopper's confrontational remark to the enemy ants. "You
think this was a game? Well, guess what--you lost!"
Granted: "A Bug's Life" is for kids. But considering the
money that was spent to bring it to the screen, wouldn't you
think producers Darla K. Anderson and Kevin Reher could
hire writers who could touch base with people of all ages in
the peanut gallery? After all, if a Greek slave could write
fables which for two millennia have charmed folks of all ages,
income levels and nationalities...well, you know the rest.
Aesop's allegory of the ant and the grasshopper is the
inspiration for "A Bug's Life," directed by John Lasseter from
an original story which he penned along with Andrew Stanton
and Joe Ranft. The story was turned into a screenplay by Mr.
Stanton, Donald McEnery and Bob Shaw. Aesop told of an
industrious ant who made hay while the sun shone, so to
speak, so that it could have a stockpile of food to tide it
through the hard winter months. The grasshopper, by
contrast, fiddled and played during the good times and was
bereft of nutrition when the snows came down. When the
grasshopper begged the ant to share the latter's hard-earned
food, the ant refused, moralizing that all play and no work
makes Jack a hungry hopper.
The difference in "A Bug's Life" is that the grasshoppers
are the imperialists: fierce warriors who demand tribute.
They do not beg from the smaller ants, but threaten to wipe
out the colony if their regular demands for food were not met.
In a plot that must be the basis for many a tale told to inspire
grade-school kids, the outsider--the scorned Rudolph-the-
Red-Nosed-Reindeer type--becomes the hero and gains
acceptance, even adulation from his people.
The movie opens on the visionary ant Flik (voice of Dave
Foley). Laughed at for his inventions and later threatened by
the feral grasshopper leader Hopper (Kevin Spacey), he
concocts an idea. He will set out to find fighter bugs in the
big city to return with him to the island and rid the ants of
their parasitic enemies. Discovering a group of circus
insects, he is amazed that they agree to do the job. What he
does not know is that the would-be soldiers believe they have
been hired simply to put on a show. To the cheers of the
ants, and later of the grasshoppers who have again invaded
the colony looking for their food, the clowns perform their
acts. Manny (Jonathan Harris), the praying mantis, is the
oldest of the cast and the most cynical and pretentious,
though his shtick is nothing short of tiresome, while Heimlich
(Joe Ranft), an overgrown caterpillar with the vision of
butterfly, is a sad excuse for comic relief. A while later,
director Lasseter and his team of writers borrow from the
Greeks once more as they equip a mechanical, Trojan bird
with a troop of ants to circle around the grasshoppers hoping
to scare the antagonists back to their own quarters. The
story build to an inevitable conclusion.
Compare this to "Antz," which from the beginning is loaded
with good shtick for adults while retaining its appeal to the
small fry. With the voice of Woody Allen in the lead role,
"Antz" hits home from the beginning as Ant Z (Allen) is on the
couch, whining about his worthlessness. "I feel insignificant,"
he moans, throwing up his arms. "You've made a big
breakthrough," exalts the therapist." "I have?" replies Z.
"Yes," the doctor responds. "You ARE insignificant." Good
puns abound. One zinger occurs when the general ant asks
for time to debrief one of his privates, to which the soldier
replies, "Please, general, not on a first date." When a group
of soldier ants and soldier termites wipe one another out,
leaving only one ant survivor, a sign appears on the ground:
"One to nothing--we win!" (By contrast, the fellows who put
together "A Bug's Life" could come up with no sign of more
power than one held up by a beggar who listlessly sits on the
sidewalk next to his placard, "Kid pulled off wings.")
While "Antz" has a great political edge, centering the story
on a situation of ethnic cleansing (soldier ants plotting to wipe
out worker ants), "A Bug's Life" has no such contemporary
A good case could be made, however, to see the picture
for its technology. The colors are anything but pale pastels,
featuring a broad array of bright, primary tones. The artists
have done everything to scale, giving us a bug's eye view of
what the universe must look like to a creature who could
barely fit on a human toenail--grass looking like whole
savannas; trees, like gods. When bugs take flight you can
picture yourself behind the controls of a fighter jet; in fact,
two of the tots in the audience began crying from the noise
which seems to have overwhelmed their delicate senses.
The closing credits almost redeem the movie's insipid plot.
Taking a clue from the Jackie Chan films, Lasseter has the
insects doing several takes before they get it right. Best of
all: when Hopper, the bad grasshopper, threatens an ant with
"Do you think I'm stupid," he can't help laughing, nor can his
victims. You get the impression for the first time that these
creatures are not simply clever animations but actual, live
beings unable to get through a take without cracking up
hysterically. If only the audience could be so undemanding.
Copyright © 1998 Harvey Karten