Directed By: John Lasseter
Starring: Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Hayden Panettiere, Phyllis Diller, Richard Kind and David Hyde Pierce
Screenplay By: Andrew Stanton, Donald McEnery and Bob Shaw
Original Release: November 25, 1998
If you were a computer animator in the 1990’s you might look at different creatures or household items and notice how complex or simple their surfaces are. For the team at Pixar, doing a film about toys was an easy choice as toys had simple surfaces and were thus possible to animate at the time of fairly limited CGI. What is something else on that list of easier to animate you might ask? Oh yes, of course, bugs. This was the initial pull towards doing a story about insects. Disney actually had a history with ants, having started work on a film entitled Army Ants which never materialized. It just so happened that the fable, The Grasshopper and the Ants provided a great jumping off point for our next film, A Bug’s Life. And so Pixar followed up their story about the unlikely heroes of toys with a story about the unlikely heroes of bugs.
A Bug’s Life was actually conceived during a lunch meeting. During the meeting, the ideas for Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo were also pitched. After putting together a story treatment, Disney was sold. They optioned it as part of the three film agreement with Pixar and work began on the script. Throughout the course of creating the film, it was quickly realized that the bugs, especially the ants, would have to look more lovable. Their pincers were removed and they were given arms and legs, cutting out the third pair of appendages. The grasshoppers on the other hand, were given extra appendages in order to make them scarier. It was quickly agreed that this would not be a scientifically accurate film.
The real drama of A Bug’s Life didn’t happen on screen though. It was behind the scenes. If you read my Vault Disney series, you might remember a fellow that I was all too happy to find had left Disney, Jeffrey Katzenberg. He left after a bitter feud and, together with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, started Dreamworks in hopes of rivaling Disney in animation. Lasseter kept in contact with Katzenberg and even used him as a sounding board for ideas. This of course came to an abrupt halt when a rumor turned out to be true that Dreamworks was working on a very similar project entitled Antz. I won’t go to into the details here but basically a fight ensued with each company having its main players calling people on the other side, yelling, cursing and then hanging up. The race began to see who could get their film out first and whether anyone liked it or not, the whole mess made its way to the press. If they weren’t before, Disney and Dreamworks were officially rivals now.
A Bug’s Life is interesting for me because I don’t think I would ever say, “Hmm, I’d like to watch a film about bugs today.” This, however, is what makes the film shine. There just isn’t a whole lot out there to compare it to as far as characters go. In fact, with the exception of Antz, there are barely any films about the life and times of bugs. The creators make great use of the idea that they are showing us this world for the first time. Getting to see how bugs live or eat or entertain each other is always fun and always creative. At one point, we even get to see a bug city which gives us all sorts of fun and interesting bugs and really makes this world come to life.
Flik is great as a main character. We’ve seen this type of character before. He’s an outcast because he tries to do things differently. He creates and tries to innovate and as usual, everyone is afraid of that and wants to keep things how they were. All of Flik’s decisions come from a place of love and caring for his fellow ants and that makes it hard to fault him even when things go terribly terribly wrong. I also love that he is so flawed. He messes up constantly and even lies to try and get the circus bugs to stay, but in the end, the one person who is able to stop the grasshoppers is himself and the courage he insights in the other ants.
I have mixed feelings about the circus bugs. I often dislike the idea of having a group of characters who are all just racial stereotypes. That sort of happens here, especially with Heimlich and Tuck and Roll. Yet, the fact that they are bugs helps to alleviate some of this pressure that I’m just watching a mixed bag of accents. The real star of this ramshackle group of one dimensional characters though is Francis, the male ladybug who turns out to have lots of depth and a great compassion for the children ants. He’s the character among them with the most story arc and the one that sort of humanizes the whole crew. In a way, the circus bugs are a bit like the toys in Toy Story that aren’t Buzz and Woody. They provide some nice jokes, but ultimately don’t have much sway on the story.
A character that does manage to be quite memorable is Hopper, the leader of the grasshoppers. The thing I love about Hopper is that he’s merciless. He wants control and he doesn’t really care if he needs it or not. He just knows that his rule over the ants is what makes him feel powerful and he’ll stop at nothing to keep that power. I absolutely love his scene in the cantina when he ends up burying two of the grasshoppers in seeds in order to make a point about what happens when the ants rise up. Not only does it make him even more evil than he already was, it also helps to really sell the ending when the ants finally do band together. I also love the creepiness factor of the grasshoppers. They are all formidable and watching them emerge from the fog at the end is something akin to going into the tall grass in a Jurassic Park film. It gives you the cold shivers in all the best ways.
A Bug’s Life isn’t quite as lovable and charming as Toy Story before it, but it does tell a solid story of why it’s important to think outside the box as well as why it’s important to always work together. Everyone has something special to contribute and if we all put our specialness together, we can be unstoppable. At its core, A Bug’s Life is a bunch of great values wrapped into one. It’s creepy and scary at times but also manages to be heartwarming and fun. Solidifying Pixar as a force to be reckoned with in animation, A Bug’s Life took CGI to new heights and paved the way for more films like it. Plus, it managed to make ants into an animal I actually cared about for once. So, that’s something.
Next Up: Toy Story 2