Magnified up to 250,000 times, a red ant’s leaftop encounter with a pillowly drop of water and the macho wrestling match between two horned rhino beetles take on grandiose proportions in “Bugs!,” the Imax 3-D project underwritten, ironically, by extermination giant Terminix. Filmmakers have structured docu as the story of a mantis and a butterfly, and, therefore, all other denizens of the rain forest are relegated to too-brief cameos. Still, astute use of 3-D effects, accomplished insect wrangling and studious avoidance of gross-out elements make this acceptable for target family auds.
Pic’s two main “characters” are a study in contrast. The female vegetarian butterfly, dubbed Papilio, hatches solo out of a single egg case. At first tiny, her loose-fitting chitin skin expands a hundredfold as she chomps her herbivorous way through her egg-case, her home leaf and then, it seems, the entire forest.
Hierodula, the meat-eating male mantis, on the other hand, is one of some 200 siblings who hatch almost fully formed, first slithering down then climbing up filaments from their cocoon to dry out, upside-down, on a leaf above. Bulk of film crosscuts between scenes of the mantis on hunting expeditions (including p.o.v. shots in simulated “Mantis-Vision” as Hierodula stalks his prey) and glimpses of Papilio’s more passively undergone caterpillar-to-butterfly transmogrification.
Helmer Mike Slee (director of the 2-D Imax epics “Wildfire — Feel the Heat” and “Legend of Loch Lomond”) seems enamored with sweepingly pictorial establishing shots, huge cranes descending down into or atmospherically rising above selected acres of rain forest. These shots look spectacular in 3-D but fail to map out any consistent topography (unlike, say, the flawless spatial integrity of that other big bug extravaganza, “Microcosmos”).
Also, undue concentration on designated “hero” and “heroine” distracts from stunning bugwork seen elsewhere in the film. Pic functions best as a succession of etymological epiphanies: An orchid mantis gingerly emerges from nature’s corsage, with its white and purple coloring exactly imitating its host flower; a triobite beetle is transformed by magnification into a fantastically armatured sci-fi creature; a wispy white scale bug drifts along a blade of grass, convincingly disguised as an ambulatory piece of fluff.
Other extremely well-timed, standout montages illustrate varieties of locomotion and camouflage among various species. The subject of reproduction, though, is largely left to the protagonists. Whatever Papilio’s long motionless mating lacks in action or suspense is more than made up for by the celebrated sex act of the mantis, Hierodula’s slow antenna-stroking of his much larger mate apparently allowed him to keep his head. Just before the couple climax, the camera coyly moves behind a leaf (the insect world’s equivalent of a euphemistic pan to a fireplace).
Papilio narrowly misses becoming Hierodula’s supper in one of pic’s early dramatic moments, complete with reverse angles and ominous music. But Papilio lives long enough to complete her extraordinary metamorphosis. Film’s “tragic” ending involves the death of Papilio, the noble usefulness of which narrator Judi Dench celebrates, infusing the event with a gravitas worthy of Arlington National Cemetery.
John Lunn’s score avoids the common pitfall of cutesy, Mickey-Moused synchronization of music and movement, using subtle Japanese motifs to accompany the Sumo wrestlerlike rhino beetles, and virile Spanish trumpets to underscore Hierodula’s exploits. Burl Ives’ “Ugly Bug Ball” (used in a Disney antique called “Summer Magic” to more cloying effect) is heard over closing credits.
Specialized lensing by Sean Phillips and Peter Parks is superlative throughout.