Bug's Life, A (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's almost a shame that A Bug's Life is debuting so close in the wake of Antz (although, to be fair, the latter film was the first to enter production). No matter when the Pixar/Disney production reached theaters, comparisons between the two computer-animated insect movies would be inevitable, but, with only seven weeks separating their openings, those comparisons will be more intense. Fortunately, A Bug's Life can withstand the scrutiny. Despite a number of similarities to Antz, there are enough variations in plot and tone to warrant another visit to the unique and wondrous world existing beneath the blades of grass.

In A Bug's Life, the protagonist is Flik (voice of Dave Foley), an ant whose sole desire in life is "to make a difference." Flik is an inventor, and, when one of his experiments goes wrong, it brings the wrath of the grasshoppers, led by the dangerous Hopper (Kevin Spacey), down upon the denizens of the ant hill. To protect the community, Flik, with the blessing of the ant queen (Phyllis Diller) and Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), ventures into the outside world and recruits "warrior insects" to defend the colony. The group of nine he collects is comprised of a praying mantis (Jonathan Harris, Mr. Smith from the TV version of "Lost in Space"), a butterfly (Madeline Kahn), a black widow spider (Bonnie Hunt), an unladylike ladybug (Denis Leary in a scene-stealing vocal performance), a walking stick (David Hyde Pierce, from TV's "Frasier"), a caterpillar with a German accent (Joe Ranft), a rhino beetle (Brad Garrett), and a pair of unintelligible pillbugs (Michael McShane). There is a mistake in identity, however. Flik's "warrior bugs" are actually circus insects, and they accompany him under the false assumption that he is a talent scout. Things start to unravel once the ant and his elite corps discover the truth about each other.

In a head-to-head comparison, it's easy to make an argument for either Antz or A Bug's Life as the best entry in almost every category that the two share. Antz contains somewhat more mature content; A Bug's Life is designed a little more with kids in mind. However, as is true of Antz, the story presented in A Bug's Life works well on two levels. Children will appreciate the likable characters and fast-paced adventure; adults will marvel at the skillful animation and subtle humor. For "star power," Antz undeniably comes out on top, with instantly-recognizable names like Woody Allen, Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone, and Gene Hackman (as opposed to David Foley, Denis Leary, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Kevin Spacey). But it's important to note that immediate voice recognition doesn't necessarily add anything to a performance (although, admittedly, it's fun to hear the banter between Allen and Stallone). The vocal acting in A Bug's Life is no less accomplished or effective than that in Antz. Visually, the films are both brilliantly detailed and wonderfully textured. A Bug's Life gives new dimensions to the diminutive world - a place where raindrops are dangerous projectiles, single berries provide full meals, and the most feared enemy is a bird. And, while most of Antz relies on earthy tones, A Bug's Life explodes with a cacophony of color. Of the three computer-animated feature length films to reach the screen thus far, this is the most dazzling.

One thing A Bug's Life has that Antz does not is a ingenious series of end credits. Instead of just the latest lame Randy Newman song warbling over scrolling names, we are presented with a collection of mocked-up outtakes that parody the kinds of flubs and goofs which have come to decorate the credits of numerous comedies. It's brilliant in both conception and execution, and one could make a solid case that the last three minutes of A Bug's Life are its best. I wouldn't go that far, but this is definitely a movie when it's a good idea not to run for the exit as soon as the story ends.

Pixar is the studio that first brought a full-length computer-generated feature to the screen with 1995's Toy Story, and, by adding A Bug's Life to their resume, they have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with not only in the realm of animated films, but in that of family entertainment in general. (Disney must be delighted to be in partnership with them.) Co-directors John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton understand that every story, even one with such an intense focus on visual elements, begins with a script and characters. A Bug's Life, like Toy Story, develops protagonists we can root for, and places them in the midst of a fast-moving, energetic adventure. And, while Antz and A Bug's Life each work well enough on their own, they are best when seen in concert, if only to compare and contrast the fine craft evident in such top-notch examples of family entertainment.

Bug's Life, A (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 1998-11-25
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1