Computer-animated movies, like computers themselves, are only as clever and funny as the people who program them. What “A Bug’s Life” demonstrates is that when it comes to bugs, the most fun ones to hang out with hang exclusively with the gang at Pixar.
Though “Antz” has a sharper title and came first to theaters, the eccentric, off-the-wall “A Bug’s Life” is the insect-themed computer-animated film to see if you can only manage one. And the wacky sensibility of the Pixar Animation Studio is very much the reason why.
It was Pixar that created the sensational “Toy Story,” the film that made computer animation a commercial and artistic force. While “A Bug’s Life” is not that good, it has enough visual surprises and gee-whiz moments to sustain its brisk 94-minute length.
It’s probably just coincidence, but “A Bug’s Life” and “Antz” have several plot points in common. Both are grounded in ant colonies facing ruinous attack from outside insects, both feature queens training their daughters in the finer points of monarchy, and both focus on a rift between conservatives who want to do things the time-honored way and a rebel with ideas of his own.
What “Bug’s Life” has that the other film lacks is an unfettered imagination, a willingness to tolerate the kind of harum-scarum, anything-goes sensibility that would come up with ideas like a delightful series of outtakes of bugs blowing their lines and calling for retakes that plays alongside the final credits.
This footloose humor comes both from the writing and the direction. Co-writer Andrew Stanton was one of the team that received an Oscar nomination for the “Toy Story” script, and his collaborators, Donald McEnery & Bob Shaw, contributed to the underappreciated “Hercules.” Directing (with Stanton getting co-direction credit) is Pixar stalwart John Lasseter, who also did the honors for “Toy Story.”
Another key to “Bug’s Life’s” success is that it’s cast a much wider net, so to speak, in terms of how many different kinds of insects make it onto the screen. And though its voices are not always big stars (the film’s story supervisor Joe Ranft did such a good job with the gemutlich caterpillar Heimlich in the first reading he got the part), they are always at one with the material.
“A Bug’s Life” starts with a typical example of its humor. As a line of ants carrying foodstuffs snakes its way through the grass, a leaf falls, obscuring the trail and causing consternation. “‘Do not panic, we are trained professionals,” cries a group of leaf removers, who clear things up while commenting, “This is nothing compared to the Twig of ’93.”
The ants are gathering food as tribute for the annual visit of a gang of marauding grasshoppers, led by the mendacious Hopper (Kevin Spacey). Don’t worry, the Queen (Phyllis Diller) tells her daughter Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), “it’s the same year after year: They come, they eat, they leave.”
No ant colony is apparently complete without its resident iconoclast, in this case a well-meaning but chronically inept young man named Flik (Dave Foley of TV’s “NewsRadio”). When Flik unintentionally causes a problem with Hopper’s gang over the tribute, he decides the only way to redeem himself and save the colony is to venture off of Ant Island and seek help from other insects.
While “A Bug’s Life” was apparently inspired by the Aesop’s fable about the grasshoppers and the ants, at this point the picture cleverly turns into an entomological version of Akira Kurosawa’s classic “Seven Samurai,” where warriors are recruited from the big city to help embattled farmers fight off brigands.
It’s not exactly warriors this time around though. While Flik is on the road, the film allows us a peek inside the bedraggled circus of P.T. Flea (John Ratzenberger) and introduces a particularly zany and irresistible group of performing insects: cheerful Heimlich, feisty male ladybug Francis (Denis Leary), the stick-thin Slim (David Hyde Pierce), friendly black widow Rosie (Bonnie Hunt), the team of Manny the Mantis and Gypsy Moth (Jonathan Harris and Madeline Kahn), rhino beetle Dim (Brad Garrett) and the irrepressible twin Hungarian pill bugs Tuck & Roll (Michael McShane).
Visually satisfying is the film’s “Blade Runner” vision of the Big (or is it Bug?) City, where a beggar wears a sign saying “A Kid Pulled My Wings Off.” Ditto for the local bar (probably inspired by the cantina in “Star Wars”), where mosquitoes quaff genuine Bloody Marys and hardier insects quench their thirsts with Black Flags.
It’s at the bar that Flik meets up with newly unemployed insects from P.T. Flea’s. He mistakes them for “tough bugs” and they think he’s a patron of the arts when he begs them to go back to Ant Island. “These guys,” one of them says, “are sure hard up for entertainment.” This confusion eventually clears up, and the circus bugs have to try to use what skills they have against Hopper and his pesky clan.
If the film’s press notes are to be believed, “A Bug’s Life” was hell on Earth to make, with some sequences demanding more than 100 hours per frame to render. It was worth all the effort. Just like Aesop’s tale of the tortoise and the hare, this summer’s insect derby is one race that did not go to the swift.
* MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: Menacing grasshoppers may unnerve very small children.
‘A Bug’s Life’
Dave Foley: Flik
Kevin Spacey: Hopper
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Princess Atta
Hayden Panettiere: Dot
Phyllis Diller: Queen
Richard Kind: Molt
David Hyde Pierce: Slim
Joe Ranft: Heimlich
Denis Leary: Francis
Jonathan Harris: Manny
Madeline Kahn: Gypsy
Bonnie Hunt: Rosie
A Pixar Film, released by Walt Disney Pictures. Director John Lasseter. Co-director Andrew Stanton. Producers Darla K. Anderson, Kevin Reher. Screenplay Andrew Stanton and Donald McEnery & Bob Shaw, story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Joe Ranft. Cinematographer Sharon Calahan. Supervising editor Lee Unkrich. Music Randy Newman. Production design William Cone. Art directors Tia W. Kratter, Bob Pauley. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
Opens exclusively today at El Capitan Theatre, 6838 Hollywood Blvd., (323) 467-7674. In general release starting Wednesday.