Entertaining in a very showbizzy way, “A Bug’s Life” reps the second good computer animated ant adventure in as many months. More broad based and kid friendly than DreamWorks’ somewhat more sophisticated “Antz,” John Lasseter’s second film won’t reach the exalted B.O. levels of his 1995 “Toy Story,” the first computer animated feature. Its imaginative design and spirited storytelling will, however, make it a must-see for family audiences, and Disney’s big holiday bugfest should ultimately enjoy the equivalent commercial relationship with the surprisingly durable “Antz” that its summer blockbuster “Armageddon” did with DreamWorks/Par’s “Deep Impact.” It will do significantly more business, but perhaps a tad less than it might have had the earlier release not existed.
Lasseter and Pixar broke new technical and aesthetic ground in the animation field with “Toy Story,” which raked in $360 million worldwide, and here they surpass it in both scope and complexity of movement while telling a story that overlaps “Antz” in numerous ways, even if the brassy tone is thoroughly different. Both films center upon an ineffectual misfit character who’s out of step with the uniformity of ant society; both involve an above-ground odyssey by this character into unknown territory, as well as a struggle with large hostile insects as part of an effort to save the colony.
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But the differences are even more immediately apparent. Presented in CinemaScope, “A Bug’s Life” bursts upon the screen with beautiful verdant hues as a legion of ants laboriously transports pieces of food up to await the arrival of their terrorizers, a gang of grasshoppers. Unfortunately, the hapless Flik, who fancies himself a brilliant inventor, knocks over the offering, and when the ants’ swaggering enemies turn up to find nothing to eat, their big bully chief, Hopper, gravely threatens the little ones’ existence unless they double their donation by the end of the season.
Both obliged to, and disenfranchised from, his community, Flik exiles himself in a search for anyone who might help his brethren out of their jam. Instead of seven samurai, however, all he can find are the eccentric members of a rag-tag flea circus, individuals who are much more inclined to put on a show at the drop of a hat than to take on a bunch of giant flying bugs.
It’s when these uniformly colorful characters start strutting their stuff that Flik and the rest of the ants are shown up as the pallid little creatures that they are. Flik is just as nebbishy and forlorn as the figure voiced by Woody Allen in “Antz,” but isn’t nearly so outspokenly individualistic or irreverent. Actually, he’s a well-meaning dullard, and the ant characters in general here are much less interestingly individuated than they are in “Antz.” It’s a fortunate thing, then, that scenarists Andrew Stanton, Donald McEnery and Bob Shaw have surrounded Flik with so many lively critters, both friendly and not.
First encountered in a makeshift arena in a sort of insect Coney Island, P.T. Flea’s circus counts among its numbers a male ladybug obsessed with asserting his virility, a proud old praying mantis, a somewhat bashful rhino beetle, a generous moth named Gypsy, a walking stick with highbrow airs, a humorous German caterpillar, an unusually friendly black widow spider and twin Hungarian pillbugs who are always “on.”
Safely transported back to the ants’ compound without a clue as to how his new friends will help defend against the marauders, Flik is inspired by a scary encounter with an aggressive orange bird to construct a mechanical bird that will scare off the grasshoppers. Happily, this creation represents nowhere near the be-all and end-all of the climax, which involves a lengthy confrontation with Hopper, who, food or no food, wants to make sure that the ants are kept in their place.
At 96 minutes, story plays out at slight overlength. But Lasseter and his imaginative team keep the senses stimulated most of the time with boisterous action, tasty character turns by some of the supporting players and, above all, gorgeous visuals that reveal new levels of detailing and coloration in computer animation.
Whereas “Toy Story” was an indoor film, “A Bug’s Life” is set mostly outside, and the landscapes and evocations of plant life are illustrated with colors that are bold and beautiful but never gaudy; overall look is crisp, clean and invariably pretty. The effects of wind, weather and movement are more precise than before, and while the number of individually rendered players is impressive, “Antz” has the edge when it comes to sheer spectacle.
Performances across the board are spirited, but a handful stand out. Jonathan Harris, voicing the vain and aging praying mantis, is superbly droll in lending life to an old school performer overly devoted to recalling the greatness of the good old days. Bonnie Hunt as the spider, Denis Leary as the misperceived ladybug and Joe Ranft as the Teutonic caterpillar all have their moments. But the stellar turn, in the juiciest role, comes from Kevin Spacey as the grasshopper ringleader; thesp’s delivery oozes with menace, condescending amusement, the relish of power and delight in naughtiness.
Picture is a bit too busy at times and excessively noisy more often than that, to the extent that it will be too assaultive for some kids under five or six. At the same time, adults had more in the way of story dynamics and characterization to grab onto in “Antz.” But everyone in between these two extremes can be counted upon to be swept up by “A Bug’s Life.”
Long end credits are spiced up by some very funny faux outtakes that are well worth sticking around for.