The Media Man Reviews: A Bug's Life
Let's go back in time for a bit. After reviewing two of Pixar's latest releases, I think it's time we went back to their earlier days and looked over one of their older movies. Their second one to be exact. Let us go back to 1998 when Pixar released their second masterpiece...A Bug's Life.
Pixar found themselves in a surprising situation at that time. They were a brand new animation studio that was experimenting in CGI animation and had made their start by making a bunch of shorts such as Luxo Jr. and Tin Toy. Then come 1995, they made the first ever computer animated movie with Toy Story. It had a rough production history (namely how Jeffery Katzenberg got too hands on and the movie had to be redone because it was so bad) but the hard work paid off in the end for Toy Story ended up being a box office and critical hit and Pixar's name ended up on the animation map. And the rest was history after that.
So after that surprise hit on their hands, the team at Pixar were left wondering "OK...now what do we do?" They've made a successful movie, can they do it again? The result was A Bug's Life, another movie that was a financial and critical success (though not as much as Toy Story). The film was quite popular at the time of its release, but as time went on and Pixar grew bigger and bigger...nobody really talks about it much these days. Whenever people think of Pixar, A Bug's Life sadly gets overlooked or slips people's radars. It's even one of the few Pixar movies not to get a franchise (though I consider that a good thing) and even Pixar themselves don't seem to think of it much compared to their other hits. It really is a shame too as A Bug's Life is just as important to Pixar's history as any other film they've made. This film proved they weren't a one-hit wonder and allowed them to keep going beyond Toy Story after all.
Confession time: this review might be a teensy bit biased I'll admit because A Bug's Life happens to be not only one of my favourite Pixar movies, but one of my all-time favourite movies. With this review, I hope to explain why that is and also hope I might be able to draw some new attention to this often overlooked movie. So is A Bug's Life bigger than an actual bug? Or should it be stepped on like a bug? Let's dive into and find out what it's like to live A Bug's Life...
Section 1: The Story
So what kind of story do we get when we look into...well, a bug's life? XD An ant colony that populates an island (creatively named "Ant Island") has to gather food to offer a bunch of grasshoppers that threaten them into complying. Unfortunately, a little accident caused by Flik, the colony's eccentric inventor, ends with the food spilling into the river. With nothing to give the grasshoppers, they have until the last leaf falls to double the order of food or else they're dead. Flik however sees another way out of their situation and goes to find a bunch of warrior bugs to fight off the grasshoppers. Little does he realize is that the warriors he does find are really a bunch of clowns...
A Bug's Life is definitely not one of Pixar's best in terms of story, that I can admit despite it being one of my favourites from their library. The story is pretty easy to figure out once it gets going and it has some of the usual tropes and clichés you might find in these kinds of movies, including...sigh...the liar revealed moment. A Bug's Life sadly stands as one of the WORST examples of this trope because of how forced it is and how ungrateful the ant colony ends up looking. Like the plan to use a fake bird to scare Hopper suddenly doesn't matter anymore because the plan was concocted by clowns? Why the hell does that matter to these idiots?! Who cares if they're clowns? That doesn't automatically invalidate the plan in any way, yet the ant colony basically goes "Screw you guys, you're clowns, not warriors so bugger off and we'll just scrap this perfectly good plan that will get the grasshoppers off our backs! That TOTALLY won't backfire on us in any way!" I may love this movie but by god, I HATE that scene and I dread having to sit through it every time I watch it. If you want an example of how to handle "the liar revealed" in a movie, use this as an example of what NOT to do...
Just thought I'd get the worst part out the way so I can talk about the rest of the story since aside from...THAT one scene(!), the story itself is really solid. Sure it's pretty average and we've seen this kind of plot many times before, but this remains one of my favourite examples of this plot. First of all, the insect world setting makes this a more interesting watch for we don't often get movies from the point-of-view of bugs. I like how we get to see how this ant colony operates and how some of the things we do might be translated into an insect environment. It makes the world at least interesting to look at and makes this movie stand out from others of its kind.
Also because of the insect world setting, this movie manages to make everything we see seem gigantic and epic. Our protagonists are the size of bugs as you know so naturally anything that seems small and insignificant to us becomes a big threat to the characters that raises the tension of the action scenes be it small cracks in a dried up riverbed being deep crevasses they could fall down and get lost in, a bird being their equivalent of being attacked by a kaiju monster or especially rain being to them what it'd be like for us to be caught in a shower of falling explosives! The action scenes feel bigger than they should due to the fact this is set in a world of bugs and they emphasize just how giant the world they inhabit is compared to them which ends up making this movie feel like as the posters would describe: an epic of miniature proportions. This in turn makes the movie feel very exciting to watch at times and I just never get bored of it every time I see those scenes.
I also feel the movie delivers in terms of character development too. For the most part yes, they're pretty simple and not overly complex, but we do see some legitimate growth for these insects that makes them feel more three-dimensional. I'll cover more of this in the next section but to sum up, this movie is another example of one of Pixar's biggest trademarks in story-telling: crafting lovable characters that feel relatable and have some growth to them. It took them two movies to set this up and they pulled it off both times in my eyes. And as Pixar also firmly established in only their second movie, A Bug's Life has that trademark heart that would further define their movies for years to come. This isn't an overly-emotional movie akin to the Toy Story movies, Up, Inside Out or even this year's Turning Red, but the movie can still play with your emotions and make you feel for what the characters are going through.
The movie is pretty well-paced too. I'm all about good pacing and A Bug's Life's story manages to be one of those stories that doesn't feel slow or rushed as it goes along. It moves at the right pace, establishes its characters nice and easily and doesn't drag or feel hurried as the story unfolds. Every scene feels like it goes at just the right length and they don't overstay their welcome.
A Bug's Life doesn't have the strongest story Pixar has ever crafted and it has one scene that almost ruins the whole experience. But it still manages to craft an entertaining movie that feels epic and exciting to watch while making the life of these insects look fascinating. Who knew such small animals could carry a big movie...?
Section 2: The Characters
Pixar has a reputation for creating some of the most memorable characters in the animation industry. A Bug's Life carries this trend and shows that even as far as their second movie, Pixar were able to make a great cast with a variety of colourful characters and personalities.
We have our main character, Flik (voiced by Dave Foley). Many view Flik as "the least interesting" character and often view him as one of Pixar's blandest characters. I don't think that's really fair because Flik, while generic in concept, isn't bland at all and I enjoy watching him in this movie. He has an endearingly eccentric personality which is further enhanced by his inventing skills and he's really great for just what a big-hearted ant he is. Even though the colony treats him like crap most of the time, he's still willing to do what he can to help the colony do what they do and be ready for the offering. And when he makes mistakes, he takes full responsibility and tries to fix them, hence his idea to get warrior bugs to fight the grasshoppers. True he does have that "liar revealed" moment but Flik is still a very likeable protagonist and honestly one that all of us should take examples from. I imagine he could easily be a role-model for kids in how they should take responsibilities for their mistakes and use their skills to help others because it's the right thing to do.
We have our secondary character, and my personal favourite of the cast, Princess Atta (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Atta may come off as a jerk sometimes in the movie, but that doesn't make her unlikeable to me as when you think about it, it makes perfect sense and is even pretty realistic. Atta is under A LOT of pressure as the one to succeed her mother as queen and carry on this annual tradition of gathering food for the grasshoppers and Flik, as well-meaning as he is, really isn't helping her case any. Atta is by far the most interesting and sympathetic character in the movie due to this position she's in and over time, she comes to learn that maybe she and Flik aren't so different after all. I'd say of all the characters, she has the most complete arc as she learns to become braver and stand up to her oppressors while also learning to cool down and be nicer to Flik.
In terms of supporting characters, we have Dot (voiced by a very young Hayden Panettiere) who is the cute little kid character who is basically moral support for Flik but she also gets her moments to shine in the story, especially when she is finally able to fly and is the one to get Flik to come back to the Ant Hill in order to stop the grasshoppers. There's also her and Atta's mother, The Queen (voiced by the late Phyllis Diller) who serves as the mentor to Atta and is shown to have a sense of humour in spite of her duties as queen of the Ant Colony.
And naturally, I have to talk about the most memorable characters in the movie: the circus bugs. Consisting of Francis the Ladybug (voiced by Dennis Leary), Slim the Stick Insect (voiced by David Hyde Pierce), Rosie the Black Widow (voiced by Bonnie Hunt), Heimlich the Caterpillar (voiced by the late Joe Ranft), Manny the Mantis (voiced by the late Jonathan Harris), Gypsy the Moth (voiced by the late Madeline Khan), Dim the Rhinoceros Beetle (voiced by Brad Garrett) and twin pill-bugs Tuck and Roll (both voiced by Michael McShane). Lead by the ringmaster, P.T. Flea (voiced by John Ratzenberger), these clowns all have their own individual personalities and roles in the circus act and each one is memorable in their own way be it the ill-tempered Francis who has issues about his feminine side, the uppity Slim who is insecure about being a prop or Dim's simple-minded, gentle giant personality that betrays his threatening appearance. Over the course of the movie, they grow to feel more confident about themselves and come to see they have more to them than they originally thought.
And now it's time to talk about the villain of this movie, Hopper (voiced by Kevin Spacey). Hopper is one of Pixar's most menacing villains due to possessing a fearsome gang of grasshoppers that know how to push the ants around and keep them in line. Despite being a bug, he is truly a threatening presence to the ants and he displays this by constantly shouting at them, pushing them around or even threatening to sic Thumper on them. I also have to say that this guy and his cruel methods are scarily relevant in today's society what with many companies abusing their employees whenever they can and fighting back when they step out of line or call for better treatment. And Hopper rallying up his grasshoppers to keep the ants in line? That too feels scarily relevant for reasons I'd rather not get into...
The only thing that sucks about this guy is his name. I mean come on guys, "Hopper"? THAT'S the best name you've got for your villain? You couldn't have picked a more generic and on-the-nose name for him! Still, what's in a name? Hopper stands as one of Pixar's best villains.
The cast are all memorable for a variety of reasons and manage to make you actually like and care for a bunch of insects, which isn't easy given most of us really don't tend to like them. All that plus a fantastic voice cast that put their hearts into their roles make for one of Pixar's most likeable and memorable casts. The voice cast especially deserves all the praise it gets for not only is everyone perfectly casted, but this is legitimately some of the best voice acting ever put into an animated film. It's up there with The Lion King in terms of most perfect casting if you ask me. With all that and some decent writing behind them, I guarantee there's at least one character you'll walk away from this movie with a soft spot for....
Section 3: The Animation
Even back in 1998, Pixar animation was really damn good looking! I mean only they could make a movie with less powerful technology like what we have today and still have it look good to this day.
When Pixar made Toy Story, they'd managed to make a surprisingly good looking movie for their first attempt. A Bug's Life continued that for them. It was a good idea for the team to make a computer animated movie about insects as they didn't have to worry about overly complicated textures like human skin or hair and could just rely on animating insect characters with hard shiny shells and exoskeletons. The result gives us a movie that has aged surprisingly well in spite of advances in technology that have since come from Pixar.
First of all, the character designs are well done. Even though the cast are insects, they all look considerably "cuter" than how actual insects look by being designed with rounder features, big expressive eyes that don't look like actual insect eyes (save for some like the flies we see in the circus audience) and having expressive faces that make it easier to tell how the characters are feeling. They feel close to the actual insects they are while also being anthropomorphised enough to feel more "human" in their movements and characteristics. This mostly applies to any of the bugs that walk on two legs in the movie like the ants, Francis, Slim and the grasshoppers but some still walk on multiple limbs like Rosie with her spider legs or Dim where he still walks like a beetle and especially Heimlich where he moves how an actual caterpillar moves. We even have P.T. Flea's rapid jumping movements that match how an actual flea moves while also being more anthropomorphised in how a flea moves.
Some of my favourite designs here include the grasshoppers where they have a much sharper and brutish look to them thanks to their great height, tough looking bodies that almost make them look like they're wearing body armour and all the spikes on their arms and legs. It really helped how their legs are forward facing like a human's rather than the backwards facing legs an actual grasshopper moves otherwise it would've looked silly and awkward for them whenever they moved. Even the bird is animated convincingly, moving like an actual bird does and due to its size compared to the bugs, they play around with it by having it emit stomping noises and monster roars as if it's some kaiju from a monster anime they're dealing with. The bird is a little let down by being textured to look like it's feathered rather than actually being rendered with any due to the limitations of the technology at the time but I still think they made the bird look pretty good in this film.
The one downside to the character designs is that while each individual insect is easily identifiable, when you get multiple insects together they don't stand out as much. The ants mostly look the same save for the main ones and their colour schemes of blue, purple and pink don't exactly make them that distinct from one another. Thankfully that's only for the ants in the crowd and as I say, the main ants are easier to tell apart at least.
Now for the background animation. This is where some of the more dated elements of the visuals are noticeable, but the backgrounds still manage to look very good all the same, especially with the textures on them like the rocks and the tree. You have the scenery where due to everyone being as big as a bug, EVERYTHING looks gigantic from the leaves on the trees to the rocks they climb up and even cracks in a dried up riverbed look like something they could fall down and get lost in. Providing a bug's eye view of the world provides for some impressive looking camera angles that emphasize the size of the world around them and makes it possible to stage some intense action scenes such as the bird attack or the climax in the rain. The world itself even plays around with how you can use human items to make sets for the bug's to explore. There's the bug city outside of Ant Island of course where every building is made from either cardboard boxes, cups or even tin cans and is populated by a wide range of insects to give us plenty to look at, there's P.T. Flea's wagon where it looks like a pair of cookie boxes given wheels and there's Hopper's lair where it's all set up inside a discarded sombrero by a cactus. Of course we've all seen animals using everyday items as buildings and all before but to see how it would work for a bug's world, it does make some neat world-building and allows for some creative visuals with the animation.
Another thing to add is that this movie marked the first of what is sadly a dead tradition at Pixar in where they'd animate bloopers and outtakes and show them during the credits. It's a pity too as they were often very funny to watch and creative to see what kind of filmmaking style mess-ups they can put the characters through. I feel A Bug's Life did it the best and I recommend watching these "outtakes" as they are a riot to watch.
Sadly, some of the effects in the animation don't look as impressive as the backgrounds themselves. The rain doesn't look particularly realistic when we get close-ups of the raindrops which means it's best viewed from a distance, the water in the riverbed doesn't look quite right and the lighting doesn't look natural enough when shining on everything. It's just easy to tell this is early 90's CGI and it just looks primitive compared to the Pixar movies of the 2010's and 2020's, though it's thankfully not an eyesore to look at.
The animation may look dated by today's standards, but it's still some really damn impressive animation and is really lovely to look at. This is a movie that is truly a treat for the eyes and incredible to think that this is the result of Pixar's second animated movie...
A Bug's Life is one of Pixar's most underrated and overlooked movies and I wish it got more recognition. The story maybe cliched but it still manages to be very engaging and feel huge and exciting to watch, the characters are memorable for a variety of reasons, the voice-acting is some of the best ever put into a movie, the soundtrack is one of the most epic ever composed for a Pixar movie and the animation, while dated, has aged really well and still looks really good. For Pixar's second animated movie, they really followed on well from what they did with Toy Story and proved that lightning could strike twice. I like to think that Toy Story planted the seed for Pixar and A Bug's Life helped it grow into the giant tree that would spawn all their other great movies they would make in the coming years.
If you're a die-hard Pixar fan like I am, I highly recommend watching it. If you're an animation enthusiast, casual or die-hard, I also recommend seeing it. Pixar have done some incredible movies, yes, but A Bug's Life is still worth your time and hopefully you'll find some new appreciation for it. Bugs maybe small and somewhat unappealing, but this movie about bugs is one that is truly larger than life...
And that's all I have for this review. I hope you enjoyed it and maybe got a sense of nostalgia from hearing me talk about this movie. Do you like A Bug's Life? Do you not? Feel free to share your thoughts down below. Next time, I review a very different kind of media as I review a bunch of DVD games I've played over the years. See you then everyone...