A Bug’s Life

(John Lasseter & Andrew Stanton, USA, 1998)


You have to sometimes wonder about the messages pedalled by movies pitched at children – particularly those extolling the innocent joys of animal and insect life. Babe (1995) was a veritable Triumph of the Will for the nursery school set – an ode to the military precision with which animals could be made to move and pose by an appropriately forceful and charismatic leader. More recently, Antz pretended to celebrate individuality over social conformity – only to finally install the Woody Allen ant as the lord of all he surveys, the benevolent giver of freedom.

A Bug’s Life, from the makers of Toy Story (1995), is superior in every way to Antz, while broadly sharing many of its elements. One again we have a colony of ants governed by strict laws of social co-operation. Again they are menaced from above by bigger, scarier insects – in this case, the grasshoppers led by Hopper (voiced by Kevin Spacey). Again, a nervy hero of humble origin, Flik (David Foley), squares off romantically against a royal heroine, Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Drefus), who is far above his station.

This splendid film is far less self-conscious than most animated features these days about using mythic, fairy tale aspects. A Bug’s Life has a much more contemporary, pop culture feel – notwithstanding the corny, 1970s strains of Randy Newman’s overwrought score. With its fast, lively, cheeky sense of humour, it has more in common with Joe Dante’s recent Small Soldiers than any other current fare for the kids’ market.

In line with its loose-limbed comedy, A Bug’s Life has a very generous and open sense of the social system which its insects represent. The ants live by laws, but their world is not the quasi-Stalinist dystopia conjured in Antz. There is ample room for eccentricity and individuality within the ranks of workers and among their benign ruling class. Best of all, this colony is willing to embrace a band of complete outsiders – a colourful troupe of itinerant circus bugs whom the ants mistake for fearless warriors.

The story takes on some of the allure of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954), as all these endangered species work together to build a bird which will scare off Hopper and company. Throughout it all, Flik’s fragile sense of self-esteem rises and plummets – but, mercifully, he never becomes the superman-hero beloved of contemporary myth-mongering endeavours.

Unlike most recent feature-length cartoons, A Bug’s Life does not strain after a spurious effect of photographic realism. Directors John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton exploit the shiny, unreal, frankly creepy look of computerised animation to maximum advantage. Their work is boundlessly imaginative – with many intricate split-second gags, on both visual and aural planes, demanding a second viewing for full appreciation. A final message to children and adults alike: don’t bolt out of your seats until the hilarious faux out-takes enliven the final credits.

© Adrian Martin December 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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