A Bug's Life (1998)

D: John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton
S: Voices of: Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus

An ant colony terrorised by a swarm of grasshoppers who demand the ants gather food for them finds itself in dire jeopardy when an enthusiastic inventor ant accidentally knocks the harvest into a puddle. In an effort to make reparation, he sets out to find warrior bugs to help the ants fight back. He mistakes a second rate circus troupe involved in a bar room brawl with some flies for genuine heroes and takes them home for the big confrontation. Complications ensue.

Enjoyable computer animated fantasy aimed more squarely at younger audiences than the similarly themed Antz. Gone are the ruminations on the nature of collective power, right wing coups d'etat, and the angst of anonymity which characterised the former film. This is a simple story of outcast makes good, with our hero a much more upbeat, proactive figure (voiced by Dave Foley). The ant colony is characterised as a good natured collection of individuals with clearly defined personalities and roles, from the wisecracking Queen (voiced by Phyllis Diller) and her stressed out daughter (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) to various functionaries including one voiced by the late Roddy McDowell and another voiced by Alex Rocco. The other characters are equally well outlined, with Kevin Spacey voicing a menacing villain and the likes of Denis Leary (!), Madeline Khan, Jonathan Harris (of TV's Lost in Space), Joe Ranft (also one of the co-writers), Michael McShane, Bonnie Hunt, David Hyde-Pierce and John Ratzenberger making lovely contributions in support.

Though the film plays with some of the same conventions of ant life including the idea of the community and the relationship between the individual and the collective, it is much simpler in outlook than Antz. Locating its enemy outside rather than in and making its hero active and extrovert makes it considerably more conventional that its predecessor. His journey from zero to hero follows the familiar generic trajectory, and its exciting, elaborate climax is followed by the traditional happy ending which comes complete with the resolution of a romantic sub plot which doesn't have a whole lot to do with the 'real' ant world (not that it matters).

Graphically (one might say 'visually'), the film is quite beautiful. Eschewing Antz anatomically accurate characters for four-limbed versions, and abandoning the 'realistic' look for a gorgeous colourful palette, the animators are free to develop some stunning individual effects such as reflections on water, leaves blowing in the breeze and the movement of plant stems. On the whole though the emphasis is on broad landscapes and outdoor scenes (both night and day), and with creating an expansive and colourful canvas upon which the action will occur. The choice of camera angles is also interesting. The film deemphasises the relationship between the ant world and the human one. Though there are many gags about the objects from our world which have different significance for the ants, the film is not at all concerned with an oppositional 'human' presence (as Antz was). It favours instead the portrayal of the ant's eye view of the world in a roughly analogous form to the way in which a live action film is normally shot, which makes it easier for the viewer to tune in. Objects and characters are viewed with a sense of scale defined by the size of the protagonists, not the audience's perception of them.

A Bug's Life is easy viewing all round. It is driven by a workable story, enjoyable characters and a good mixture of adventure and comedy, intended to provide harmless amusement for young and old alike (it goes out of its way to include characters of almost every age group, including the very young). It looks good, is bright and colourful both physically and emotionally and never attempts to challenge the viewer's expectations. For some this might not be as interesting as Antz or The Prince of Egypt (both of which tried to push the boundaries of 'traditional' animation in terms of script and theme), but it easily holds it own against both because of its success with what it has attempted. Be sure to stay seated as the credits roll though, as there is an unusual set of gags which ape 'outtakes' from live action films and provide a final unexpected giggle.

Overall A Bug's Life is well worth seeing. Comparisons with Toy Story are inevitable, and on the whole it matches up. Though it lacks a certain amount of the savvyness of Pixar's previous feature, it makes up for it in broad appeal and an obvious wish to entertain. Recommended.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.