Old Review: A Bug’s Life

All the insects have a specific roll in the world, and on Ant Colony all the ants have a basic job that repeats year by year. In the spring, when the food is fully grown and ripe, the ants harvest. The harvest gets eaten by the grasshoppers and then the ants collect more harvest for themselves to take care of themselves through autumn and winter. This has been the order of life for many years for the ants of the colony and as long as nothing went wrong, the ants have been perfectly fine.

This year the eldest princess of the colony, Princess Atta, is currently in training to become the new Queen, and being her first year leading the colony, she’s ultimately nervous about any slip ups to occur, and it doesn’t help that she has to deal with a very accident prone ant, Flik. Flik is very individualistic, and likes to help improve the colony through the inventing of new tools and developing new ideas, although this usually gets him into trouble. His troubles reach a new high when he accidently knocks over the year’s harvest, causing the grasshoppers to break through. The leader of the grasshoppers, simply named Hopper, gives the ants until the middle of autumn to collect up double the amount of food. All looks troubling and Flik is about to be punished until he brings up an idea, he will leave the colony and hire a group of strong bugs to help fight off the grasshoppers. Princess Atta and the others agree to this in the hopes that he would never return, however he actually brings back a group of bugs that agree to help, the only problem is that they aren’t warrior bugs, but retired circus bugs who got new work after losing their jobs at a circus.

Despite this unlucky situation, Flik, Atta, the circus bugs and all the ants have to choose whether to fight off the grasshoppers, or hope that they collect enough food to make sure they don’t reach a dire fate.

In 1994, during the production of Toy Story, a group of the creative staff including John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Joe Ranft discussed future project ideas. The idea for A Bug’s Life began as doing Aesop’s fable The Ant and the Grasshopper, but later changed to a loose adaptation on Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai. Disney originally had ideas of creating a film based around ants called Army Ants back in 1988, but despite the idea never materialised, it did influence them to green-light Pixar’s next major project. Pixar worked hard on this project in the hopes that it wouldn’t bomb for two reasons; one was the fear that they would lose reputation from releasing a film that wasn’t as good as its previous hit, and that a new rival studio Dreamworks was releasing their own film about ants. While Antz was pitched afterwards, it was scheduled to be released earlier than A Bug’s Life by one month. Fortunately, while Dreamworks won the battle, Pixar won the war as their film earned a higher profit.

Without comparing it to Pixar’s later films, A Bug’s Life has very good animation and it has stood the test of time. While some points are very cheap and cartoonish, most of it is very smooth, detailed and most of the movements and characteristics of all the characters in this movie feel quite accurate to their real life insect counterparts, yet they also have some freedom to show expressions. However when you compare it to Pixar’s more recent film, the animation is far inferior but for its time as Pixar’s second movie it stands on it’s on. The environments are bright and the characters have a more rounded design, so it’s really suited for younger viewers and it has a mostly engaging atmosphere. With almost every Pixar film, each had at least one technical achievement to show how cutting edge Pixar was. The technical achievement in this film was large crowd scenes, which was so advanced at the time that they made a team of over 50 animators specifically to pull it off, and while they look clever, the characters themselves lack any major variety, making it hard to tell if there are duplicates or not.

The orchestral pieces are pretty simple and memorable, with an interesting amount of brass accompaniment. They mainly suit the positive and light-hearted feel of the movie, and get dark and tense whenever the grasshoppers go on screen. However this isn’t a musical score worth listening to on its own, since it’s mainly generic and isn’t as effective as the visual cues. Contrary to ones expectation from Pixar movies, I think the main theme “The Time of Your Life” performed by Randy Newman is the soundtrack’s Achilles heel. I love “You’ve got a friend in me” for its lovely melody, memorable lyrics and a touching message in the song, but this one doesn’t really have much of that. It is a nice song but it is a very weak song.

The voice acting is mostly generic, they sound like typical characters seen several other times, but they do keep the likability in their respective roles to make them tolerable. The only ones I think go beyond tolerable to enjoyable would be Kevin Spacey as Hopper and the late Joe Ranft as Heimlich, Kevin Spacey makes Hopper a really effective villain, as his deep and serious tone of voice always makes him threatening, even when he has a positive mood, and despite Heimlich practically being an overweight German stereotype, Ranft acts like he doesn’t care that his character is a stereotype, and his incredibly silly performance makes him hilarious to listen to. The other casts are like I said earlier, generic. They are tolerable and the actors do give a level of likability to the characters, but all they have are generic personality traits, such as Flik being a klutz, Princess Atta being contentious, Dot being cute etcetera.

The story itself is ok, it’s a light hearted action comedy loosely based on Seven Samurai, and you would expect some emphasis on the word loosely. However, as a Pixar movie, I have always felt since a kid that A Bug’s Life was their weakest film until the release of Cars. First of all, the warrior/circus bugs are mostly dull for the most part. Most of them practically act as just one joke for the entirety of the movie, with little character development and other humour. For example, one of the circus bugs is Francis, a male Ladybug who hates being referred to as female, but because of the type of insect he is, he always is, and that’s it. All he does in the film outside of rescuing one of the ants is based around this one ladybug joke. The rest of them almost have the same problem, I say almost because Heimlich the caterpillar as a small piece of outside joke character development. The other problem is that some of the plot feels dragged down because of some of the characters, such as the circus owner PT Flea, who I hate because all he ever does is make the plot longer by revealing the warrior bugs for who they are, and you end up waiting for the moment the bugs come to their senses and go back to the colony. At the end of the film I was happy, as there were enjoyable moments, it has a colourful design and a good humour, but it’s not as good as most of Pixar’s more recent movies.

If Cars is Pixar’s weakest film, A Bug’s Life would be second place, and if Cars 2 is a real disappointment then Bug’s life would be third. It is a nice movie, it has its moments, it might have some nostalgic value to it and it definitely holds out with what other animated studios have produced even 13 years on, but it is clichéd and has characters which aren’t really broad enough to remain interesting. However, if you have good childhood memories of this, or are interested in Pixar’s past, it’s worth a watch.

A Bug’s Life is available from Walt Disney. The film’s original influence, the Aesop’s Fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper” is available in many forms such as books, audio and animation. The other influence for the story of the movie, Seven Samurai, directed by Akira Kurosawa, is available from Criterion and the British Film Institute, and while I don’t want to go on a last minute tangent but if you love anime and Japanese films, you need to see this film!


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