Should I Watch..? 'A Bug's Life' (1998)
What's the big deal?
A Bug's Life (stylised as "a bug's life") is an animated family adventure film released in 1998 and was the second feature-length animation produced by Pixar after 1995's Toy Story. Essentially inspired by Aesop's fable The Ant & The Grasshopper, the film revolves around a misfit ant who unwittingly recruits a failing circus troupe of bugs in defending his colony from grasshoppers. During production, Pixar learnt that rival animation studio DreamWorks Animation were developing their own insect-based animation called Antz which led to a public feud between director John Lasseter and DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. Despite both films being released within months of each other, A Bug's Life was critically well received and also far more financially successful than its rival at the box office.
What's it about?
Within a colony of ants located in a dried-up riverbed lives Flik, an individualist and wannabe inventor. Under the rule of Princess Atta and her mother The Queen, the colony has fallen prey to a gang of grasshoppers who demand food from the ants. But after Flik accidentally loses the ant's offering in a stream, the grasshoppers demand twice as much in return. Facing disaster, Flik is recruited by the ant colony to find warriors who will fight off the grasshoppers. But the real purpose is to remove Flik from the colony so he can't cause any more trouble.
Unaware of this deception, Flik heads out to the big city - a pile of rubbish under a trailer - and quickly finds his warriors. However, these aren't the bugs he's looking for - they are circus bugs recently fired by their old boss who mistake Flik as a talent scout. Believing that Flik is offering them a new chance to perform, they agree to go with him back to the ant colony when the nasty Hopper and his boys are getting impatient...
What's to like?
Even for those of us now used to CG-rendered animation, A Bug's Life is still very pretty to look at. Like Toy Story before it, the film makes good use of light and colour to present a world that is both imaginative and recognisable. The characters are also well rendered, each with a different look and personality that goes beyond the performance of their respective vocal talent. The film is also much more ambitious than Toy Story ever was - the film has multiple story-lines running through it and the nature of the film means that even the driest and most boring patch of soil is suddenly a vast, epic desert waiting to be crossed.
Unlike its stablemate, however, is the film's target audience which is much younger this time around. Pixar have left enough in there to amuse the grown-ups but this is probably Pixar's most child-friendly picture alongside the disappointing Cars 2. The story offers plenty of scope for fun to be had by all and the complexity of the animation cannot help but amaze. The cast also do a fantastic job and certainly suit the film better than the cast of Antz - is anyone under the age of ten really going to be familiar with Woody Allen? Undoubtedly, the best is Ranft as German-accented Heimlich whose camp caterpillar provides the film with its one true star.
- This is the first Pixar film to have outtakes as well as the first Pixar film to have a trailer made up entirely of material specifically for the trailer and not the main movie itself.
- Robert De Niro repeatedly turned down the role of Hopper. At the 68th Academy Awards ceremony, Lasseter bumped into Kevin Spacey and asked him if he was interested in the role. Spacey signed up immediately.
- In the US, the film was preceded by the short Pixar animation "Geri's Game" when it was shown in cinemas. It has since become a tradition of Pixar whenever a new film is released theatrically to show one of their shorter films as well.
What's not to like?
Of course, it's hard to watch a film like this when you're expecting some of the brilliance of Pixar's first feature film. Yes, there's no sign of Buzz or Woody or the others but the film is still entertaining enough and especially for the younger viewers. Grown-ups won't enjoy the slapstick humour and poop-poop jokes (unless they're extremely immature) while none of the lead characters are that memorable compared to Woody and Buzz. Flik, by contrast, is a bit of a let-down.
And now, I think, we're getting to the reason why A Bug's Life isn't held in such high regard as many other Pixar films. Technically, it's a hard film to fault but there's no magic to it. Other than Heimlich, there are no particularly memorable characters and the film isn't as easy to relate to as others like Inside Out or even Finding Nemo. There's little charm behind it - it feels clinical and precise, with little of the heart found in a lot of Pixar films. Yes, they did a great job animating the film and for turning hideous bugs into likeable characters but it's hard to get excited about A Bug's Life.
Should I watch it?
Die-hard Pixar fans will enjoy it regardless but A Bug's Life is hardly the lowest point in Pixar's exceptional back catalogue, despite what the naysayers proclaim. Its winning combination of fun, colour, noise and action is perfect for keeping the younger members of your family entertained. I just wished that it had something more for the grown ups and didn't feel quite so much like a technical exercise instead of a genuine film for all the family.
Great For: nature lovers, younger viewers, the Pixar faithful
Not So Great For: grown ups, anyone who prefers the more grown-up Antz
What else should I watch?
Antz, while being far too similar in many ways, is a lot wittier and smarter thanks to better dialogue and a more adult feel. But there's no disguising the fact that it's still a kid's film and truthfully, there's not much to separate the two. DreamWorks animation wouldn't fully hit their stride until the likes of Shrek and Madagascar came along and by that time, other players were coming onto the scene like Blue Sky Studios with Ice Age and Disney themselves with Chicken Little.
Pixar, meanwhile, have gone on from strength to strength with massive hits like Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up and the billion-dollar-plus Toy Story 3. But my personal favourite is the sublime WALL·E which is inspiring, beautiful, heart-breaking and tragic and I never tire of watching it. Proof, were it needed, that Pixar are still the guys to beat.
Dot, Atta's younger sister
Heimlich the caterpillar
Francis the ladybird
John Lasseter & Andrew Stanton
Andrew Stanton, Don McEnery & Bob Shaw *
Release Date (UK)
5th February, 1999
Animation, Adventure, Family
Academy Award Nominations
Best Original Score
© 2015 Benjamin Cox