A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 302 – A Bug’s Life

A Bug’s Life – December 27th, 2010

It seems that after several days of merry-making and then a snow storm neither Andy nor I were up to the long movie we’d been hoping to watch tonight. Which is a pity, as we’re moving well away from Christmas. But then it also serves to extend the holiday season and I’m all for that. Last year I decided to celebrate until New Year’s was over and it was very nice indeed. So we’ll save the long movie for Wednesday or Thursday and stick to easier movies for now. Things that make us smile and not think too hard.

Perhaps we should have watched this closer to when we watched Antz. They came out close together and both feature ant colonies in trouble. They both have a socially awkward outcast ant with a thing for the queen ant’s daughter. And both socially awkward ants have to somehow find a way to save the colony from disaster. I’ve seen this happen in other media as well and it’s kind of amusing. But while the urge to capitalize on the vampire and werewolf market is understandable in YA lit, where did the ant fascination come from in two studios at the same time? I was in college at the time, so I can’t say I had the time to be following what was going on in children’s entertainment. Was there a big bug push for a while there? I have no idea. When you think about it, while bugs are fascinating and all, they’re not terribly cuddly and it takes effort to make them cute. And yet both Dreamworks and Pixar made the attempt.

In this movie the socially awkward lead is Flik, voiced by Dave Foley of Kids in the Hall fame. He’s just a worker ant, but he has all sorts of plans and ideas about how to make things better, faster, more efficient, easier, etc. He’s also accident-prone and maybe one out of ten of his ideas pan out at all. Usually, of course, they end in disaster. His colony is also in trouble, as they’ve been suckered into a protection scheme by a group of grasshoppers led by the sociopathic Hopper, played by Kevin Spacey with a casual cruelty that I honestly find a little unusual in a children’s movie (usually villains are over-the-top nasty and caricatures of evil whereas Hopper is nonchalant about it all, which feels more sinister). The grasshoppers arrive every year two weeks before the rains come and demand a tithe of food. The ants hand over their summer/fall harvest and then scramble for enough to feed themselves for the winter. This year Flik messes it all up and the food is lost, leaving the colony racing to find more food fast and Flik sent off ostensibly to find help. He’s actually been shoved out of the way by Princess Atta to keep him from messing anything else up.

In true cartoon fashion, Flik finds a group he believes can help, but it turns out they’re circus performers, not the warriors he assumed them to be. And so begins the attempt to make a plan to save the colony with tricks instead of brute force. It ends up being sort of complicated, actually, which is a criticism I have of the plot. Flik brings the circus bugs to the colony, the colony is overjoyed and welcomes them! The circus bugs freak out when they realize they’re expected to fight, but Flik convinces them to stay! The colony finds out they’re circus performers and sends them packing. Then they save the younger princess, Dot, and the colony welcomes them back! They put their plans in motion, the grasshoppers arrive, everything goes to hell and the ant equivalent of a troop of Daisy Girl Scouts (led by Dot and Flik) save the day. It has so many ups and downs it’s like a particularly nausea-inducing roller coaster. I like vast swaths of the movie and I like a lot of the performances. I love the circus bugs and how they add a lot of variety to the cast and visuals. But the whole movie is “OH NO!” followed by “YAY!” and then immediately after there’s another “OH NO!”

As I said, I do enjoy a lot about this movie. The performances are fantastic, with the aforementioned Spacey and Foley doing great jobs with the leads. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is fun as the often exasperated Princess Atta and then there’s Phyllis Diller as her mother. The circus bugs, however, are really the ones I adore. Madeline Kahn, Bonnie Hunt, David Hyde Pierce, Denis Leary? They’re all fantastic. I would have loved to have the movie be more about them than the beleaguered ant colony. It’s a perfectly nice little movie, but it’s uneven and that’s a pity. More circus bugs would have been just the thing.

December 27, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

A Bug’s Life

December 27, 2010

A Bug’s Life

We’re almost out of Pixar movies. Of all the ones we own there are only this one and Up that we haven’t reviewed yet. Up because we know that watching it will require an entire box of tissues, and this movie because, well, I just don’t like it that much. It feels like a horrible thing to say, blasphemous somehow, that a Pixar movie isn’t pure genius, but this movie has just never quite done it for me.

It’s clear that an astonishing amount of effort went into this film. The detailed backgrounds are so lush that they almost seem alive at times. There are astonishing crowd scenes involving hundreds of ants. This was only the second feature length Pixar film and the enormous leaps they made in technical ability just from Toy Story to this are astonishing. But Pixar have always been about so much more than technical wizardry, and this film just doesn’t capture me emotionally the way every other Pixar movie does.

I can’t quite put my finger on why it is that I am disappointed in this movie. It has a lot going for it, really. It has Denis Leary as an irritable ladybug with a complex because everybody assumes he’s a lady. It has David Hyde Pierce as a stuck up walking stick. It has a much expanded role for John Ratzenberger who usually has a cameo appearance in all Pixar films but who is a major character in this one. It has one of the last performances by Madeline Kahn. It has Kevin Spacey playing one of the most sinister bad-guys in any children’s movie (you fully believe he’s capable of casual violence.) In short it has a fantastic cast of colorful characters, but even so it fails on some level for me.

The plot revolves around Flik, an ant with ideas. He wants only to use his inventions to help the rest of the ants in his colony, but instead trails disaster behind him everywhere he goes. The ants of ant island are busy preparing an enormous feast for a small cadre of grasshoppers who arrive every year to demand tribute from the ants, but Flik messes everything up and the sacrifice is lost. As a result the nasty grasshoppers promise bloody retribution if their tribute is not gathered before the last leaf falls. Flik gets the notion that he could go out into the wide world and find warrior insects to drive off the grasshoppers when they return, and the other ants are glad to see him go since he won’t be around to mess things up any more.

Flik does find a group of insects that he thinks are mighty warriors, but they are in fact down on their luck circus performers. They think he is looking for entertainment and he thinks they are just the ruthless warriors he has sought, and so they all return to ant island. Of course eventually the comic misunderstanding comes out and some other means of dealing with the grasshoppers must be found, and it all ends with a big action scene.

I really wish I could nail down what it is about this movie that gets so under my skin. Part of the problem is that some of the main characters are so familiar to me. The bumbling inventor. The cute-as-a-button young princess (who reminds me so much of the girl kitten from the Aristocats.) The saucy queen who feels as though she’s transplanted from the Golden Girls. (Played by Phyllis Diller, which amused me.) The whole movie feels more Disney than Pixar. It feels as though it is a sit-com on prime time television. I love the circus performers themselves, they’re a colorful and hilarious group, but everything else in the movie falls flat.

Amanda points out to me that part of my dissatisfaction with this movie might be that the other movie about an ant cast out of the colony which came out in the same year was so much cooler in my eyes. Antz, from Dreamworks animation, was edgier, darker, stranger and more brooding. Of the two movies Antz is by far my favorite, which might be part of why I’m so down on A Bug’s Life – it’s a perfectly good movie but it doesn’t capture my imagination in any way.

Undeniably the best part of the movie is the rotund caterpillar Heimlich played by Pixar staffer Joe Ranft. His performance was meant to be a temp track used to guide the animators and help whatever actor they found to fill the role, but he did it so well that you can’t imagine anybody else in the part. His delightful antics steal every scene and he even gets the last line in the movie. It’s not enough to redeem the movie in my eyes, but it helps, and it brings a smile to my face.

I wish I could just give up and love this movie. It’s got a great homey comfortable soundtrack that screams Randy Newman, which I generally like. It’s got a colorful crew of strange characters and it’s got a lot of actors I enjoy and respect. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just too safe a movie. It never challenges me. It never engages me. At best it makes me chuckle a couple times and doesn’t actively irritate or offend me. It’s just not what I would expect from the geniuses at Pixar.

December 27, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment