Friday, May 29, 2009

A Bug's Life

Over the past month, I've watched all ten Pixar films with my kids, and I've decided to blog about the experience.

A Bug's Life was released in 1998, the second Pixar film to see theaters. At the time, I still wasn't a complete Pixar devotee yet ("Stop it. Stop it, you zealots!"), but I was well on my way. I remember, at the time, being disgusted by the release of Dreamworks' Antz (and not just because they put that 'Z' at the end of the title to try and make it hip, like the crappily named WNBA teams. Starzz anyone?). Antz, in my mind anyway, was obviously a rush job that Dreamworks pushed out the door as fast as they could to try to upstage Pixar's forthcoming A Bug's Life, and to perhaps capitalize on the less informed people who either had heard that the Toy Story folks we're making a movie about ants, but didn't know what it was called, or assumed that all computer animation came from the same studio.

At the time, Disney and Dreamworks were in a full scale war. Jeff Katzenberg (the K of Dreamworks SKG) had left Disney to form the Dreamworks studio with Stephen Spielberg and David Geffen. Katzenberg was heading up their animation department. Disney, who were kings of animation at the time, were left in a serious lurch, and their royal status was soon to be lost. Katzenberg was the rudder, and without him, they floundered about, making horrible films like Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, and Home On The Range. The only thing that was keeping Disney's star high in the sky were the folks at Pixar. While still at Disney, Katzenberg had made the deal that brought Pixar aboard. So, once he was on the other side of the fence, he, of all people, knew the value that this new computer animation had. The sad fact that Antz was the first animated feature from Dreamworks, says something about where Dreamworks would ultimately be headed, though--not towards great filmmaking, but toward creating products with all the replay value of a happy meal toy.

I remember seeing the trailer for Antz, though, and being intrigued. I was a film student at the time, and had an unexplainable love for the works of Woody Allen, and the trailer was classic Woody Allen. I went to see Antz (I went to see every movie that came out back in those days, film student remember) and I was disappointed. There were about five minutes of interesting things in that film, the rest was garbage. The trailer was far better than anything the movie had to offer. On top of that, the animation was a sub-par level to that of the Pixar studios.

Finishing off the Dreamworks rant, I remember, at the time, reading a newspaper article with a quote from Jeff Katzenberg. Dreamworks was releasing their first hand-drawn animation feature, The Prince Of Egypt. On the release date of The Prince Of Egypt, a new version of A Bug's Life hit theaters with all new "outtakes" in the credits. It was a trick to get people to come see the film another time, to see the "outtakes" they'd not seen before. It probably added another $20 million to the film's gross is my bet. Katzenberg, in the article, commented on how petty and small Disney was to try to undercut his film in this way, after all, this film was to be his crowning achievement. The memory makes me laugh. This from the guy who rushed out Antz to undercut and profiteer on A Bug's Life? Give me a break. It was a rather mild retaliation if you ask me.

On to the topic at hand--the actual film. Bug's life is a really good film. It's a sort of cross between Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai and the fable of "The Ant and the Grasshopper." From any of the other computer animated studios, be it Fox, Dreamworks, or even Disney (when they used to make their own CG films like Chicken Little and Meet The Robinsons) this would have been the kind of film that they made sequel after sequel to a la Ice Age, Shrek, and Madagascar. With Pixar, it's only middle to bottom of the pack. But don't get me wrong, it's better than anything I've seen out of the other guys (then again, I've been snobbishly turning my nose up to the other guys for some time, so who knows).

The characters are interesting and rather well defined. Considering that there's a whole mess of bugs that come to help the ants, this is quite a feat. They definitely focused on Manny, Francis, and Heimlich, but the other's had a sort of an arc as well, perhaps more as a group than individually, but the arc is there, for sure. The main character, Flik, and the princess, Atta, were, of course the actual focus of the film. Flik's journey to prove himself could be an inspiration to any of us who believe we have something of worth, but aren't born into the position that makes it easy to share our worth with others. Don't give up, whatever your dream is. Also, always be honest with everyone in your quest to achieve your dream. Remember that everything it takes to make a giant tree is contained within each little seed.

The actors who lent their voices to this film made up a veritable cornucopia of known, but not well known names. At the time, with Seinfeld still sitting firmly atop the ratings, Julia Louis-Dreyfus was easily the biggest name. But there was the guy from The Kids In The Hall doing Flik (a fact that I just realized a few minutes ago looking at the IMDB page). There was the guy from Everybody Loves Raymond doing Dim the Dung Beetle. There was the guy from Frasier doing the walking stick, the guy from Spin City doing Molt the annoying Grasshopper, Phylis Diller doing the queen, Kevin Spacey doing Hopper, Dennis Leary doing Francis, Madeline Kahn doing Gypsy, Bonnie Hunt doing Rosie, and of course no Pixar film is complete without John Ratzenberger, the guy from Cheers!. The list just goes on and on. I noticed on the IMDB page, that there are a couple of other now stars that you might not have realized were in the movie, because they hadn't become stars yet. For example, Hayden Panatierre, who became a huge star when she was the focus of Heroes' first season "Save the cheerleader, save the world," storyline, was the voice of the baby queen ant, Dot. Also, in the realm of weird, Ashley Tisdale, of High School Musical fame, was one of the Blueberry Scouts.

The best part about all this, was that Pixar didn't try to sell the movie on the strength of the voice actors name recognition. Instead, they did what they always do best, and found interesting voices that matched with the characters they had created. It's a trap that every other animation studio seems to fall into, Fox, Dreamworks, and even Disney's 2D films (remember how they played up the voice of Demi Moore on The Hunchback Of Notre Dame thinking that for some reason that would put butts in the seats, all the while she was starring in Striptease on the screen down the hall. Duh!) Pixar has gladly never fallen for that siren song, choosing story quality over marketing every time.

Heimlich was a character that I sat down to watch with trepidation. He had been the center of all the pre-release ad campaign. He was the funny guy of the film, so they placed him front and center on all of the McDonalds commercials and so forth. Only, on the ads he was annoying. Annoying as hell. I was afraid that I would hate the movie for his sake. Happily I was proven wrong. He was never taken too far. His character didn't become some Robin Williams-like show stealer that began funny and ended up grating. Heimlich turned out to be one of my favorite characters in the film. And he was voiced by the late Joe Ranft, whose death still brings a tear to my eye, so you gotta love him. I admit, however, that I never thought it was all that funny when he came out of the cocoon at the end looking exactly the same as when he'd entered except sporting a tiny pair of wings. It was funny to hear him say, "I'm a beautiful butterfly, I'm flying so high that from up here you all look like ants," though.

Some of my favorite moments in the film...let's see. When the queen is talking about the annual visit from the grasshoppers with her daughter, Atta, she gives us one of my favorite lines from any Pixar film. "It's our lot in life. It's not a lot, but it's our life." It's a corny joke, but I laughed out loud at that one all the same, and I've quoted it again and again, when the situation called for it, since then.

Another really powerful moment is when the grasshoppers are trying to convince Hopper not to return to Ant Island. He illustrates his point by taking the grain from the bottle and tossing it at the grasshopper. "Let's pretend this grain is an ant...did that hurt." He does it again, and again, getting only laughs from the grasshoppers. Then he pulls the plug on the bottle, and a tidal wave of grain pours out, crushing the treasonous grasshopper beneath it. Hopper stands there, no expression on his face at all, as the grains pour forth. It's such a powerful moment, and I can't think of a more effective scene anywhere that shows just how bad of a bad guy we are dealing with here.

I also very much enjoyed the soundtrack to this film. I know a lot of people who say that if a soundtrack is made by Randy Newman, it can't be good, but I don't agree. Newman has a talent for making a tune you'll recognize and remember. Toy Story was chock full of songs sung by Newman in his iconic raspy voice. Those were all right, but it was A Bug's Life that had the music that drew me in. I'm much more a fan of instrumental film music, and A Bug's Life soundtrack was the first Pixar score that I owned a copy of. The themes have an interesting western feel, as though it was a film about pioneers crossing the plane and establishing a town rather than a movie about ants and bugs (I guess that means that it was a cross of The Magnificent Seven and "The Ant and the Grasshopper," but then again, The Magnificent Seven is just an Americanized remake of The Seven Samurai, so I was right after all).

Oh, one thing I almost forgot, A Bug's Life was screened theatrically with a short cartoon. Geri's Game was the first Pixar short to be shown before a Pixar feature, and it is, in my opinion, one of their best. Another cartoon has come along and surpassed Geri's Game's excellence, but I won't tell you which until I get to the post on that film. Geri's Game is such an excellent example of why every movie should be preceded by some sort of short cartoon. It is hilarious, good-spirited fun. It's hard to believe that Pixar could entertain children with cartoon about an elderly man playing chess with himself, but there's not a moment of lost attention from the kids. Like I said, this was Pixar's best until recently. If you've missed it, and you enjoy cartoon shorts like I do, you really should see it.

There's a lot more to say, but I'm going long, so I'll finish up with just a couple more things. My son loved A Bug's Life when he was a little guy. He especially thought the part when the rain storm arrives was cool. The inspiration for the rain scene was obvious to me at the time, because I had seen it in one of my film classes. I had a class on documentary films, and in one class, we talked about the film Microcosmos. This was a movie in which they used extremely small cameras to film bugs, slugs, and other tiny creatures. I think they invented the cameras for the making of the movie. It took what the average person knew about bugs to an all new level. Anyway, in my documentary class, we watched the scene where the rain storm hits. It was amazing to see how such a simple thing as a spring shower could be a mini-apocalypse to something as small as an ant or a beetle. Well, it was obvious that the guys at Pixar thought it was amazing as well, because they wrote a similar scene into A Bug's Life. I thought it was cool.

Lastly, this movie was the first to include the fake "outtakes" from the "filming" of the movie. It was a brilliant idea, and very well executed. Most of the outtakes were funny on their own, but the whole idea of outtakes to an animated film was sublimely humorous. Unfortunately, and this is something you don't have to complain about with Pixar very often, they took it too far. Having fake outtakes in Toy Story 2 and then again in Monsters Inc. was just a mistake. I wasn't too upset when they did it for Toy Story 2, but I went into Monsters Inc. praying that they wouldn't go back to that well again, but they did. So it was with a big smile on my face, that I watched actual credits roll for Finding Nemo.

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