Review: A Bug’s Life
Set in the world of insects, and focussing primarily on a society of ants who are constantly bullied by the bigger grasshoppers (who look and act more like locusts or wasps if you ask me), who make them give up food. When a well-meaning ant named Flik (voiced by Dave Foley) screws up and leaves them with not enough food to provide the grasshoppers, the rest of the ants pretty much make him a leper. He decides to head out on his own to find a way to rectify the situation. He comes across some ‘circus’ insects, who he mistakes for brave warriors whom he assumes will be able to help ward off the grasshoppers, who led by the intimidating Hopper (voiced by Kevin Spacey). Being circus folk, Flik is clearly in for a bit of a disappointment. Or is he? Julia Louis-Dreyfus voices neurotic ant Princess Atta, Denis Leary is a tough Ladybug named Francis, the legendary Jonathan Harris is a praying mantis named Manny, Phyllis Diller plays the Queen, and Roddy McDowell plays an elder statesman ant and veteran thespian, named Mr. Soil.
“Three Amigos!” done wrong. It has taken me two attempts just to get all the way through this 1998 Disney/Pixar animated effort and I still don’t like it. An animated retelling of “Three Amigos!” (which itself was based on “The Seven Samurai”/“The Magnificent Seven”), it features bland and unappealing characters, indistinct voice acting (with one exception), and what little plot there is gets bogged down with the idiotic ‘circus’ insects. The earlier retellings of this basic plot made it work, but here it goes askew.
In “The Magnificent Seven” and “Three Amigos!” (and despite Kurosawa being name-dropped in the end credits, it’s definitely more “Three Amigos!”) the poor villagers were the supporting characters and not terribly important outside of setting the plot in motion. However, here their ant army equivalent are the main characters, and they are incredibly boring, and all look the same. I know you could say the same of “Antz” (and indeed I would, to an extent), but that film had a much smarter and more amusing script. I said that the film gets bogged down with the ‘circus’ insects, but in reality, those characters should’ve been the main characters. They’re not, though, and as such the story plays out in rather wonky fashion so that you end up actually resenting what screen time is spent with them because while they’re pissfarting around, it’s as if everyone forgets about the dire situation at hand. It takes forever before the main character works out what is immediately apparent, that these are ‘circus’ bugs. I never had such issues with any of the previous versions of this basic story (including the excellent space opera version from Roger Corman, “Battle Beyond the Stars”), but here it’s really lethargic. Directed primarily by John Lasseter (“Toy Story”, “Toy Story 2”, “Cars”), for a movie that only runs about 90 minutes, it felt interminable. I was miserable by the end of this.
The animation is wildly uneven, with the background animation being quite good, but the character animation is far too brightly coloured and cartoony. The stick insect voiced by a wasted David Hyde Pierce is the only one to be realistically coloured, whilst the ants are all lilac. Y’know, just like real ants. Or fucking not. However, as I said the background work is nice and quite textured. Along with the strong music score by Randy Newman (“Three Amigos!”, the “Toy Story” trilogy), it’s a highlight of a film that really doesn’t have many highs (and even Newman did a much better job on “Three Amigos!” with the hilarious songs). I was really disappointed with the voice work here. Yes, there’s a whole lot of TV names here (including Richard Kind, John Ratzenberger, the inimitable Jonathan Harris, and the far too ubiquitous Brad Garrett), but some of them are genuine talents, and I think it’s a real problem when Julia Louis-Dreyfus and David Hyde-Pierce (two of the best sitcom stars of the 90s) are bland and forgettable. Even worse is Dave Foley, a mediocre comedian on a good day, he’s given the lead role here and his voice just never seems to register. I get that he’s playing an unassuming, lowly character here, but it’s a real problem when your main character looks and sounds indistinct, bland, and completely uninteresting. It’s pretty obvious why you don’t hear from Dave Foley much these days, especially in movies. There’s seriously something wonky with the sound here, as a lot of the voices sound indistinct or strangely muffled. Honestly the only one who really projects their voice properly and leaves any impression at all is Kevin Spacey. He could play a villain in his sleep, but he’s nonetheless terrific as usual. The rest of the cast are mostly charmless, though Denis Leary is an inspired choice to voice the Ladybug, who is actually a male. That was a cute gag. It’s always great to hear Roddy McDowall, but he’s only got a cameo. Also, it has to be said that these insect characters are seriously irritating and bugged the hell out of me with their incessant neurotic chatter. It’s one of the main things that had me turning it off the first time around. Compare them to the mostly reptile/rodent cast of “Rango” (yes, I know I rave over that film too much for some of you I’m sure, but it’s terrific), where potentially unappealing or ugly animals were pretty charismatic, quirky, and interesting.
You’re either an “Antz” person, or you preferred “A Bug’s Life”. I didn’t think “Antz” was anything great, but I’m definitely much more in that camp than this. Tedious, most of the voice cast is nondescript, and with mostly cartoony animation, this was a chore for me. The script is pretty lousy, with the basic plot seemingly going astray at times to focus on the circus insects schtick for far too long at the disservice of the crisis at hand. Talk about lacking urgency. No, this just isn’t good enough, and is highly overrated. If not the worst Disney/Pixar film, it’s certainly the most boring by far. It’s got a pretty large fan base, however, so perhaps I’m the one missing out. The screenplay is by co-director Andrew Stanton (“Toy Story”, co-director of the lovely “Finding Nemo”), Don McEnery & Bob Shaw (who both co-wrote the mediocre animated “Hercules”) from a story by Lasseter, Stanton, and Joe Ranft (“Beauty and the Beast”, “Toy Story”).