This sweet, play-it-safe adaptation of TV's honeybee heroine is as innocuous and uninspired as preschool animation gets.
Bee yourself — a simple message for Studio 100’s simple-minded “Maya the Bee Movie,” being the latest adaptation of Waldemar Bonsels’ beloved apian adventures, in which an anthropomorphized honeybee explores the meadow around her hive, befriending all the creatures she meets there. The kidlit classic has been adapted many times in its 100-year history, from German director Wolfram Junghans’ 1924 silent version (“starring” real bees) to a mid-’70s Japanese anime series that eventually found its way to Nickelodeon. This Teuton toon — supported by Australian coin, and boasting a quality English-language dub from its Down Under cast — derives from Maya’s most recent TV incarnation, also produced by Studio 100, and represents only a negligible improvement in quality (mainly, the addition of 3D) over what kids in the narrow 5-to-7 age range have already been enjoying on the smallscreen.
Compared with DreamWorks Animation’s big-budget “Bee Movie” — or indeed any of the many insect-centric toons to hit megaplexes since the rise of computer animation — “Maya” simply doesn’t aim very high. But then, that may come as a relief to parents exhausted by the overly antic quality of all those other bug stories. This one has jokes, but not the nonstop barrage of shrill voices and pop-culture comedy that often accompanies blockbuster toons.
Over the course of a century, the “Maya the Bee” property has drifted from its literary roots and crystallized around the group of round-headed, googly-eyed characters featured in the Japanese series, and it is that ensemble — as popular as Babar or the Smurfs in some corners of the world — that appears here: newly hatched baby bee Maya (voiced by Coco Jack Willies), best friend Willy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), grasshopper Flip (Richard Roxburgh), etc. Design-wise, they’re rudimentary at best, with a lack of dynamism and detail you might expect from a breakfast cereal commercial, not a bigscreen feature. (Come to think of it, even that Honey Nut Cheerios bee has more personality.)
As in Bonsels’ book, there is rebellion among the bees, giving rise to a new villain, Buzzlina Von Beena (Jacki Weaver, Oscar nominated in scheming mode for “Animal Kingdom,” but sounding rather run-of-the-mill here), and her bespectacled stooge Crawley (Noah Taylor). In her scheme to be queen, Buzzlina steals the royal jelly and banishes Maya from the hive, forcing the inexperienced young bee into the colorful corn poppy fields beyond.
“Where do I belong?” Maya wonders, dissatisfied with the way bees are numbered and assigned to a specific lot at birth. Yawn. As kidpic crises go, this one barely resonates with the target audience, who will be more interested to see how Maya gets along with the critters she meets in the outside world. There are run-ins with dung beetles, a pair of Aardman-esque ants and a young hornet named Sting (Joel Franco), who gives Maya a chance to repair a longstanding feud with that rival black-and-yellow-striped species.
All told, in giving parents nothing to object to, director Alexs Stadermann (who got his start making straight-to-video sequels for Disney) has also given them little to get excited about, apart from the idea of sharing Maya with another generation of preschoolers. The film, which has already pulled in $6 million in Germany and more than $1 million in half a dozen other territories, won’t earn anywhere near that for U.S. distrib Shout! Factory in theaters, but as a catalog title, it should do far better bzzness.