Amiable but no more, “Bee Movie” puts a hiveful of potent talent at the service of a zig-zigging, back-of-an-envelope story that’s short on surprise and originality. Long sought for animation work, producer-writer-star Jerry Seinfeld contents himself with whimsical notions and mild jokes in creating an independent-minded bee who breaks with protocol to forge a relationship with a human, to less than inspired results. Seinfeld’s name, a huge push by Paramount/DreamWorks Animation and venture’s mainstream innocuousness should combine for sweet if not blockbuster B.O.
Seinfeld’s patented quirky humor does lend this cross-pollinating tale a distinctive personality, one notably less crass and pandering than that found in such other DreamWorks toons as “Shark Tale” and the “Shrek” sequels. Effort’s gentleness and modesty are not unappealing, but these qualities simultaneously provide the picture with an underwhelming impact which, given the deja vu aspect of certain key elements, contribute to its overall ho-humness.
Opening stretch recalls DreamWorks’ first animated venture, “Antz,” with its portrait of a highly regimented community and focus on one youngster who’d prefer to go his own way. “We’re the most perfectly functioning society on Earth,” insists Adam (voiced by Matthew Broderick), best pal of Barry (Seinfeld), as the two graduate from school and are obliged to commit themselves to life-long jobs with honey conglom Honex. Despite pic’s beguiling view of the bee community as one big playground, Barry slips off to join the “pollen jocks,” macho aviators who are the only bees allowed to leave the hive.
Squadron’s flight into Central Park and Manhattan constitutes the film’s most exuberant, visually adventurous passage. Initially exhilarated by all he sees as the heavy-bellied, yellow-and-black pilots bomb around town, Barry becomes imperiled by a tennis ball and racquet before landing inside an apartment. There, a kind florist, Vanessa (Renee Zellweger), prevents Barry from being swatted by putting a glass over him so she can put him outside.
Despite the strict bee-world commandment against speaking with humans, Barry feels so grateful to Vanessa that he initiates communication with her. Unfortunately, in this crucial scene, Vanessa is animated to gesticulate and make faces in such an exaggerated and off-puttingly mechanical way that it takes a good while to embrace the character, whose empathetic instincts warm Barry’s cockles, if a bee’s heart has such.
Revealing to his busy-bee parents (Kathy Bates, Barry Levinson) that he’s “met someone,” Barry is asked by his mom, “Was she beeish?,” to which he replies that she’s “not a wasp.” Such jokes continue as the script (penned by Seinfeld, former “Seinfeld” writers Spike Feresten and Andy Robin, and Barry Marder, author of the “Letters From a Nut” tomes) pursues a parallel with “The Graduate” that becomes explicit with a homage to the latter’s famous swimming pool scene. Barry simply can’t decide what he wants to do with his life, so he follows a line of perfectly modern logic: When in doubt, sue.
So who does Barry sue? Why, the entire human race, for “stealing” the honey Barry’s fellow bees so industriously produce for what they thought was their own benefit. A much-publicized trial ensues, with a verdict that yields unanticipated consequences for man and bug, but which ultimately clears the way for greater mutual understanding between the species.
It’s a goofy but wispy concept, one hardly developed in ways that charge the emotions or one’s sense of justice. Nor does the critter/human dynamic here possess the crucial interdependence that it did, for example, in this summer’s “Ratatouille.” Helmers Simon J. Smith (“Shrek 4-D”) and Steve Hickner (“The Prince of Egypt”) move things along agreeably, and, while the visuals are awash with vibrant colors, they lack the intricacy, detail and facial nuance of the best computer animation; both “Antz” and Monsters, Inc.,” for example, provide infinitely more worked-out hidden worlds for their characters to inhabit.
Voicings by an array of top talent are fun, and musical backing provides some bounce.