GOOD BUT NOT GREAT: A Bug's Life (1998)

A Bug's Life (USA, 1998)
Directed by John Lasseter
Starring Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Hayden Panettiere 

This is the 550th film I have reviewed since joining Rotten Tomatoes in 2009. You can find all my rating and reviews, both pre- and post-blogs, here:

As a general rule, I have always preferred PIXAR's output to that of Dreamworks. Both companies deserve credit for pushing the visual envelope with their character designs and for helping to usher in an age in which animated films can be taken seriously in the western world. But PIXAR's output is not only more consistent, but has a better idea of what a proper children's film should be: while Shark Tale has a multitude of adult jokes which will go over youngsters' heads, designed solely to keep the paying parents awake, Finding Nemo pitches its story and characters at the same level for everyone, treating children as intelligent and the film as a family event.
That's not to say that Dreamworks has never come close to PIXAR in terms of quality: the first two Shrek films are great entertainment, with the former being on a par with Monsters, Inc. and the latter being a far more rounded barrel of fun than The Incredibles. But perhaps the most acrimonious example of Jeffrey Katzenberg edging out over John Lasseter would involve A Bug's Life, released in the same year as Dreamworks' Antz with a number of clear similarities. Where Antz was rough around the edges, politically savvy and surprisingly dramatic, A Bug's Life is an enjoyable but slight offering whose technical brilliance disguises a very thin story.
The rivalry between A Bug's Life and Antz shaped the identity of both films so deeply that it is worth going over the story of what occurred. Katzenberg left Disney acrimoniously in 1994 after falling out with CEO Michael Eisner, but kept in touch with Lasseter and others at PIXAR while post-production on Toy Story was underway. Lasseter and co-director Andrew Stanton met with Katzenberg in October 1995, with Lasseter discussing what would become A Bug's Life. After Dreamworks acquired PIXAR's contemporary PDI, the trades papers announced that the studio's first project would be Antz. Lasseter felt betrayed, claiming that Katzenberg had stolen his idea, while Katzenberg claimed that the idea had been pitched to him as early as 1991. What followed was months of allegations and horse trading, as both companies competed to finish their film first and to secure it a prime release date, avoiding competition from Disney's The Prince of Egypt.
In a nutshell, A Bug's Life is PIXAR's difficult second album. Having established themselves so emphatically with Toy Story, the studio was looking to consolidate its position, having access to Disney's distribution power but being creatively distinct from them. Confronted by Dreamworks' rebellious streak on the one side and a shoring up of the Disney renaissance on the other, Lasseter delivered a film which was less confident and less emotionally gripping than its predecessor. It's still a technical marvel and remains enjoyably diverting, but it feels like a retreat into a somewhat Disney-shaped comfort zone rather than a stretch of all its legs.
Perhaps the biggest clue to this retreat is in the film's premise. European folk and fairy tales have been Disney's wheelhouse for decades; three years before Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released, Disney tackled Aesop's fable of the ant and the grasshopper in one of his more memorable Silly Symphonies shorts. Aesop's stories are hardy and malleable, making it very easy to bring the settings up to date without watering down the moral. But because they are inherently designed as short stories, it takes creativity to expand them into a feature-length tale.
A Bug's Life partially succeeds, insofar as it doesn't feel entirely over-long, but many of the elements which it decides to include end up feeling like distractions to the main plot rather than adding to it. The circus animals do make for a pleasant couple of set-pieces, complete with funny accents and some decent slapstick comedy. But given how much the threat of the grasshoppers has been built up, the more screen-time they get the more it feels like the script is striving to keep the grasshoppers away, lest the film end sooner than intended. Comedy based upon confusion or mistaken identity can work, but as in Much Ado About Nothing hard work is needed to sustain it, or at least keep our suspicions at bay for long enough. Ultimately even the funniest members of the troupe outstay their welcome, providing decent jokes but not enough narrative impetus to justify their continued presence.
A similar problem lies with our main protagonist, who pales not only in comparison to his Antz counterpart but also to his cowboy predecessor. Where Woody was intriguing, believable and went through actual character development, Flik is largely one-note: he starts as the clumsy, creative inventor and he's still that by the end, save for a few bouts of depression in between. You sympathise with his plight not because of his own redeeming features, but only because the other ants are so mean and narrow-minded. Dean Foley does a decent job with the material he's given, but he remains one of PIXAR's less memorable protagonists.
By building itself around a bumbling inventor and a love story, A Bug's Life ends up feeling like a more conventional film than Antz does. Whatever you may think of Dreamworks' subsequent output, a lot of the creative decisions in Antz were pretty adventurous for a children's film of the time. Aside from its battle scenes and disaster movie ending, the film was dripping with political commentary, taking Aesop's comments about industriousness and delivering a film as close to Marxism as American cartoons have ever come. A Bug's Life has some interest in the political side, but it's introduced relatively late in the day and isn't allowed to be fleshed out as much as it could have been.
If we take the Antz comparison completely out of the picture, A Bug's Life still has merits. You might not feel that all the characters are completely necessary, but the script does manage to balance the coverage given to the various little groups pretty effectively. It doesn't have the quality of the last act of Return of the Jedi, where Richard Marquand cut away every time a particular sub-plot or character decision in one part of the universe ran out of steam. Instead the story builds organically, with some cheerful humour along the way.
The visuals of A Bug's Life are arguably its most memorable feature, and it is tempting to brand the whole film as a triumph of style over substance. The standard of animation is as high as on Toy Story; there is less of a need to convey realistic human expressions due to the lack of human characters, but this challenge is substituted by the arduous task of giving personality to hundreds of seemingly identical creatures. Lasseter and his team pull this off through some very subtle programming and design variation, achieving the same kind of effect that Peter Jackson would in creating the Battle of Helms Deep in The Two Towers.
Aside from its character design and articulation, the world of A Bug's Life is very appealing to behold. The colour palette has a gentle, pastel quality to it which reflects the natural environment, and great effort has been expended to bringing a proper sense of scale to the ants' surroundings. The design is more consciously child-like than some later PIXAR efforts, veering close to Silly Symphonies in some of its backgrounds and the way that certain scenes are blocked. But it still feels like a world which could stretch beyond the four corners of the screen, adding to Flik's sense of being part of a tiny community is a huge, unexplored area.
The performances in A Bug's Life are pretty decent in quality without being massively memorable. Kevin Spacey is the stand-out as Hopper, turning in a performance with a decent amount of menace; his amount of threat is sporadic throughout the film, but he does deliver when it matters. David Hyde Pearce is the stand-out among the circus animals, though as in Treasure Planet four years later he is not always given enough to do given his surprisingly wide range. The other principles get the job done without leaving an enormous impression - Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Hayden Panetierre and Phyliss Diller are all fine but unremarkable.
A Bug's Life is a slight yet diverting film which remains one of PIXAR's lesser efforts. Its remarkable visuals and some of the vocal performances are enough to keep younger viewers entertained, and most of the jokes have dated pretty well. But whether compared to Antz or the studio's other efforts of the time, the film feels less substantial and emotionally resonant, settling for a well-worn approach instead of trying something more adventurous. It makes for pleasant viewing on a wet Sunday evening, but Toy Story is a far better means of both entertaining children and introducing them to Lasseter's genius.

NEXT REVIEW: Harry Potter and the Philospher's Stone (2001)