Movie Review: A Bug's LifeBy Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Directed by John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton
Written by John Lasseter, Don McEnery, Joe Ranft, Bob Shaw, Andrew Stanton
With the voices of Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, David Hyde Pierce, Joe Ranft, Denis Leary, Madeline Kahn, Bonnie Hunt
A Bug's Life is on one hand not a sequel at all and on the other hand twice a sequel and twice a remake. Coming from the team behind Toy Story and less than two months after another computer-generated ant-colony adventure, Antz, it doesn't exactly feel like it's breaking new ground. This impression of "neat, but I've seen this stuff before" is made even stronger by the fact that its storyline is liberally borrowed from Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, which was already remade as The Magnificent Seven. The plot ("a bunch of mismatched warriors protect a peaceful settlement from bandits") is here merged with Aesop's fable, "The Ant and the Grasshopper," which was later rewritten by La Fontaine - but never mind. If we go into the maze of such questions as to who borrowed what from whom, we'll never get out.
The story, as I said, concerns an anthill, annually raided by a bunch of hungry grasshoppers, led by the domineering Hopper (voiced, with both excellent comic timing and unsettling menace, by Kevin Spacey). When a local misfit Flik (Dave Foley) messes things up, he's sent to find somebody to protect the ants, and - you guessed it - messes things up again.
For your convenience, a handy comparison of Bugs with Antz: Bugs has more characters, Antz has more interesting characters; Bugs has more visual wit, Antz has more verbal wit; Bugs has more complex visuals, Antz has better visuals.
All of these are surprising. Perhaps because of increased influence from Disney, Bugs feels somewhat closer to the traditional formula of kids' animated movies (though it's not a musical). There's a traditional villain (Toy Story's Sid was an antagonist, but not a villain, if only by the virtue of his demented creativity); a traditional quest for the hero to redeem himself (Foley's bland vocal performance doesn't do anything to make it any less cliched); and a lamentable feel of a film where a lot of effort was spent on its look, and not enough on its screenplay. It also feels like the voice actors were on much tighter rein here - with the exception of Spacey, not a single one makes any lasting impression. This is especially disappointing compared to how much fun Woody Allen, Gene Hackman, and Sylvester Stallone seemed to have had voicing their roles in Antz.
The most surprising difference is in the visual aspect. Antz is the first fully computer-generated production from DreamWorks and Pacific Data Images, while Bugs is Pixar's sophomore effort. Antz has less complex visuals (even its impressive crowd scenes with hundreds of ants were, essentially, achieved through replication), so Bugs certainly scores on the sheer number and variety of objects - insects (many different species), leaves and blades of grass, fire, drops of water, and various man-made junk. But they only look good until you see them close-up, at which point everything looks like a toy. This, with all due respect to Woody and Buzz, is boring. There's no lightness or brittleness or even translucency to the textures - all of the insects look like they are made from a uniform plastic. Character designs are inconsistent, so that some insects (the stick bug and the horned beetle, for example) look pretty much like their prototypes, the other ones (like the black widow spider) look nothing like the real things. The ants themselves are inexplicably blue-colored; perhaps a visual pun on "blue-collared," but still fake looking.
At least the story is complex enough to keep your attention despite the visual shortcomings. There are enough things going on at any given time, and enough subplots weaving together that A Bug's Life is never less than entertaining. It doesn't quite catch fire for most of its running time, though. Things seem to happily move along, agreeable but not engrossing.
Until about ten minutes before then end, that is. At that point, right after what seems like the climax, it starts raining, and the sight of huge (from ants' perspective) raindrops falling and splattering about is incredible, especially because all of this occurs on the scale where the surface tension is comparable to gravity. As if imbued by the rain's energy, the film itself shifts into another mode - that of rapidly-paced, visually stylish, action extravaganza. The last five minutes are spectacular, enough to completely erase any impression that the visuals were rendered on a computer. It's a great cinematic scene, regardless of the images' origin, and it's the second biggest reason to see this film.
The biggest reason comes during the final credits. Don't miss them on your life. They're funnier than the rest of the film.