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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

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 motif.

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

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