While animated movies are great showcases for the latest wonders in computer animation, many of them are punctuated by melodic corn syrup—such as Donny Osmond singing about the pressures of being a soldier in Mulan. Happily, Disney and Pixar's latest release, A Bug's Life, is free of such dribble. A weave of slapstick and drama, this story of an ant colony joining forces with a band of assorted bugs to fight an army of menacing grasshoppers is the finest movie I've seen in a long time, animated or non-animated. I'm even willing to sit in a theater full of restless children to see it again.
A Bug's Life
directed by John Lasseter
voices of Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey,
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, David Hyde Pierce, Denis Leary
Other than the fact that A Bug's Life focuses on an ant colony, it has little in common with that other bug movie currently playing, DreamWorks' Antz. For one thing, you won't get Woody Allen's old whiny shtick as Z., a disgruntled outcast. Flik, the delightful protagonist of A Bug's Life, is also an outsider, but rather than feeling sorry for himself, he gathers his wits to turn things around. When we first see him, Flik is blazing through a field with a motorized back-pack contraption that cuts and gathers the grain in a breeze. He's a brainy ant, an inventor, and he stands upright. He's also goofy-looking, visually reminiscent of Kermit the Frog. In fact, Flik and the other ants are more akin to the Muppets or the Smurfs than the segmented black critters that run across your picnic blanket. Colored in light lavender, with chubby baby faces and curious, expressive eyes, these bugs are cute, they're friendly, and they've got heart.
The large ensemble of intriguing characters includes a macho ladybug, a Machiavellian grasshopper, an epicurean caterpillar with a German accent, a cynical walking stick, and a pompous praying mantis that fancies himself a great artist. Each figure takes full advantage of the spotlight when it shines on him. When Francis, the male ladybug (Denis Leary), causes a group of little girl ants to start crying, he diverts them by juggling three drops of water, throwing them into the air, and catching them in his mouth. "Ta-da," he says, arms wide open.
Anthropomorphic touches aside, A Bug's Life ultimately rests on the inevitable facts of insect life. We see how each critter is at the mercy of a higher species. The ants pick the food, the grasshoppers eat the food, and the ants are fortunate if there's anything left over for the long winter. In turn, the grasshoppers are prey to birds. When Hopper, the despotic leader of the grasshoppers is dropped into a nest of hungry baby birds, the scene is neither dishonest nor gratuitous. The birds are sweet and soft-looking; with beaks raised and open, they squawk for nourishment. The image is downright terrifying.