This is apart of my series of Pixar reviews
“Circus Bugs?! How can you be circus bugs!?”
After the monster success of Pixar’s first feature film, Toy Story, Pixar had three years before they were ready to debut their follow up feature film, A Bug’s Life. Determined to prove that Toy Story wasn’t simply a fluke, Toy Story director John Lasseter returned to helm the project. The public still wondered if computer animation was a passing fad or was here to stay?
Of course, they were also competing with a rival studio in Dreamworks Animation, headed by the former head of Walt Disney Motion Pictures Division, Jeffrey Katzenberg. Even now, 20 years later it seems hard to mention A Bug’s Life without mentioning the competing film, Dreamwork’s Antz. Both computer animated, both with a connection to Disney Animation and both about Ants. 1998 was the battle of the bugs in the animation field. Both studios traded comments towards the other but one studio (with 20 years of time passing) has seemed to win out. It seems when most talk about Dreamworks Animation, most begin the conversation with Shrek (the studio’s first big hit) and the conversation around Antz seems to only prop up once A Bug’s Life is talked about. But, how many still remember the adventures of Z (the Ant played by Woody Allen) vs the adventures of Flick, Hopper and the warrior bugs?
In some fairness to Dreamworks and Antz, A Bug’s Life does tend to be a more overlooked entry in Pixar’s catalog. A Bug’s Life is sandwiched between two Toy Story films and it isn’t quite on the level of a Monster’s Inc. or Finding Nemo. If we’re being completely honest the real winner of the Antz vs A Bug’s Life war is really Geri’s Game, the Pixar short that played in front of A Bug Life (my favorite Pixar short).
That all being said, A Bug’s Life isn’t the masterpiece that Toy Story was but it is none the less a strong entry in Pixar’s lineup of films with strong, memorable characters and arguably superior animation to Toy Story.
It has been said that when the story started being drafted for A Bug’s Life that it was inspired by Aesop’s fable The Ant and the Grasshopper. Although I have never found anyone on record stating this, A Bug’s Life is also a semi-low key remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. An ant colony works all day in order to gather food for themselves and also to make an offering to the Grasshoppers, the menacing terrifying bugs that rule with an iron fist. One ant, Flick (voiced by Dave Foley), sets out to find a group of warrior bugs in order to come back and fight them off after Flick causes them to lose all their food.
Aside from Flick being a screw-up, it is hard not to watch this movie and not think of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Whether this was intentional or just coincidence (or maybe it is all in my own head) I have yet to find out. The difference here instead of Flick finding true warrior bugs he instead finds circus bugs that he mistakes for warier bugs. Meanwhile, the warrior bugs mistake Flick for someone offering them a circus job.
A Bug’s Life does fall victim to the “liar revealed storyline” which is a trope I’m not a big fan but it does tend to work from to time (coincidently Dreamworks would use this a number of times in their films). Here the storyline works thanks to the strong writing that accompanying this film. A Bug’s Life is constantly witty and imaginative, always finding unique ways of bringing this world of bugs to life that never feels lazy. Not to keep picking on Dreamworks (I actually like Dreamworks believe it or not) but one of the reasons I don’t enjoy the movie Shark Tale is because the world building feels lazy filled with shorthand pop culture references that don’t really add much to the movie except a nudge and a wink. A Bug’s Life doesn’t fall prey to that. Like Toy Story, Pixar finds creative ways of finding a real bug’s world and translating it into a cartoon world that is fun. The city that Flick travels too is just a bunch of boxes tossed away by human beings that have formed a big city. Little things like that make the world more interesting and clever.
A Bug’s Life’s weird assortment of colorful side characters is mainly how the movie succeeds. The warrior bugs are made up a stick named stick, catapillar, and a ladybug, beetles, and among many others. The characters are also voiced by a large cast of talented voice actors that all bring their own sense of energy to their parts giving each of these characters their own unique personality.
In Toy Story, the villain of the movie was neighborhood delinquent. Sid is the villain because we’re seeing the story from the Toy’s perspectives. In our everyday life, we might shake our heads at Sid but he isn’t the worst person in the world (still he works completely in the framework of that movie). In A Bug’s Life, we get a more traditional villain in Hopper. Hopper is smart, calculating but has a brewing angry side that he unleashes on occasion. Hopper is a terrific and memorable villain, as a kid, he was always one of the scarier villains in Pixar’s canon of characters.
From an animation standpoint, A Bug’s Life is head and shoulders even stronger than Toy Story. There is a lot more environmental locations with a wide variety of weather patterns, including sunshine, night and rain (the rain sequences are absolutely fantastic). There are far more character models that the computers needed to render and far more characters on screen at one time than even Toy Story. The animation is bright and vibrant and it never feels like Pixar had to sacrifice anything in order to accomplish their more ambitious goals. Even from a modern perspective it still looks pretty well done.
So what does A Bug’s Life lack that other Pixar movies have? A Bug’s Life seems to lack the deeper emotional resonance that other Pixar movies really fined tuned. That isn’t to say A Bug’s Life lacks heart or doesn’t have its own emotional moments but these moments don’t feel as refined as some of the stronger entries in their filmography.
A Bug’s Life still works even without being as strong as some of its peers. A Bug’s Life was proof (and to give some credit where credit is due along with Antz) that computer animation wasn’t a passing fad and the style of animation could be used to tell unique, interesting stories and build interesting worlds. A Bug’s Life is a really good movie and was a good sign that bright things were ahead in Pixar’s future and oh boy were they.