I have seen every Pixar film as it has come out, but a few of them predate my efforts to write down my thoughts, so those have to wait for me to have a repeat viewing before I jot down any impressions. I was going to have to qualify that with a statement that I didn't actually catch Planes, but that was Lasseter working with Disneytoon, so it turns out I don't have to. One of the films I never got around to writing anything about was A Bug’s Life, which I don’t think I’ve properly watched since the early 2000s. Though it shows its age now, A Bug’s Life still thrives on its heartfelt story, likeable ensemble cast and ambition – and besides, we make allowances for 90s CG. Even if the fact is that if it came out today, it would be called badly-done, we are aware how pioneering it was at the time, how much better than contemporaneous video game intros – and, indeed, Antz – it looks, and as a result make allowances for it. Besides, vibrant older animation looks quite a lot like some highly advanced claymation in any case.
The story of A Bug’s Life isn’t a thousand miles from Timon’s story in The Lion King, especially if you’ve heard his cut verse from ‘Hakuna Matata’. Flik works in the ant colony, paying his dues, though he doesn’t accept without question the prevailing view that not only is an ant’s life one long grind, but that their lot in life is to not only gather food for themselves but for the big, mean grasshopper gang as well – an option not explored by Aesop, I must say. When one day, just before the ‘offering’ to the grasshoppers is made, one of the crazy inventions Flik makes to try to speed up the harvesting process goes awry and knocks the entire feast the colony has prepared into the water that surrounds the ants’ little island. His carelessness makes him the outcast of the society for a while, but when he seizes on the idea of going out into the wider world to seek ‘warrior bugs’ who will fight off the grasshoppers, the elder council see it as either suicide or a very lengthy waste of time – so agree to let him go.
In the ‘city’, Flik does indeed find some big, tough-looking bugs, but what he doesn’t know is that they’re actually circus performers. They think he’s a talent scout, he sees them getting lucky enough to knock out some flies, and there’s a classic misunderstanding. However, once everyone realises the mistake, Flik still tries to cover everything up by devising a plan of his own. Meanwhile, the grasshoppers debate what’s really at the heart of this film – the fact that when a small minority oppress and effectively enslave a larger group, they end up using fear to avoid rebellion, but how long can revolution be held off? It’s a fascinating mirror to historical events, and gives thought-provoking analogies to racial conflicts of the past.
First and foremost, though, of course this is a kids’ comedy about a misunderstanding, revolving around insects. The most memorable element of the film is the collection of insects who make up the circus – personalities made to reflect or invert expectations about how a particular insect is expected to behave. There’s the beautiful butterfly girl, the rather doddery old mantis who plays a mystic, the ladybird who of course wants to be seen as a tough guy, the big fat ridiculous caterpillar and…well,
Frasier in stick insect form. They work brilliantly together, and Pixar
stalwart John Ratzenberger does well making his flea ringmaster likeable
despite him being the one to not only fire our heroes but inadvertently messes
up their more high-minded plots not just once but twice.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this ensemble is that Flik – quite intentionally – looks a lot like all the other ants (four-legged to look less freaky, I assume). Amidst such a cast neither he nor his princess love interest really stick in the mind, and the everyman hero becomes rather forgettable. But at the same time, there’s a point made there about the unremarkable one being able to be brave enough to stand up for himself…though as histories of war unfortunately show us, most invading forces wouldn’t have threatened so much killing and never managed it.
The bad guys are also well-crafted, with Kevin Spaacey having a marvellous time as the lead baddie and his dimwitted brother in the comic foil role is also not so absurd that he irritates. There’s a crazy feral grasshopper, too, who gets one of the best moments in that sadly now-gone institution of early Pixar – the fake blooper reel during the credits. This one may be the best of them all.