Wednesday, December 28, 2016
A Bug's Life 1998
I think most people expected Pixar to follow up Toy Story with a sequel, so it was a bit of a surprise that they decided to do this odd little thing about bugs.
In the same year that A Bug's Life came out, Woody Allen also did an animated feature about ants, called imaginatively enough Antz. It did okay at the box office, but it wasn't a patch on Pixar's effort. Antz was really rather like a lightweight Woody Allen comedy that starred neurotic ants, instead of neurotic people.
I don't know whether or not this was a conscious decision on behalf of the film makers and writers, but the storyline of A Bug's Life is very close to that of The Magnificent Seven.
A colony of ants (poor Mexican village) is preyed on by a gang of grasshoppers (bandits), and know that sooner or later they aren't going to be able to continue to feed themselves and the parasites that live off them. They send one of their own (well Flik is kind of exiled) to find them help, and he comes across a circus of bugs (group of fighters) and takes them back to his colony where they eventually take on the grasshoppers and emerge triumphant. Admittedly the body count in The Magnificent Seven was higher, but A Bug's Life is still essentially a film aimed at younger audiences, although as with Toy Story there are jokes that go right over the kids heads, but make the adults laugh. A lot of the bug town is full of this. It even had the 'toughest' of the warrior bugs befriending the ant kids, just like Charles Bronson's character did in The Magnificent Seven.
That grasshoppers were the villains of the piece was also of interest to me. I had a story in a Disney collection that was about a grasshopper and an ant colony. I think it was based on an old folk story. In that a fun loving grasshopper mocks the ants for working all summer, while he just has fun, but come winter he's cold, hungry and homeless and the hard working ants offer him food and shelter. He learns a valuable lesson. I do wonder if the idea of using a group of outlaw biker grasshoppers was sort of inspired by that story and it was a sly dig at Disney at the same time.
The circus had an interesting variety of bug life: there was a spider (black widow), a preying mantis, a moth, a caterpillar, a stick insect, a ladybug, twin slaters, and a rhinoceros dung beetle. The various bugs had circus skills which kind of fitted their species. The spider was an 'animal' tamer and high wire performer, her 'anima' was the dung beetle, the preying mantis was a magician, the butterfly was both his wife and assistant, the slaters were acrobats and the caterpillar, stick insect and ladybug were clowns.
The animation had noticeably advanced from Toy Story, although admittedly the animators probably found it a bit easier, because they didn't have to do any people and the attendant problems that animating hair always brought. The only thing that didn't look quite right was the bird and that was because of the feathers I am sure.
It's hard not to look at what Disney was doing at the same time and compare it. Pixar's animation comes out way ahead. At this time Disney's films looked like flat 2D pictures, whereas Pixar's had real life and was more three dimensional. In 1998 Disney's big animated release was Mulan. Props to them for moving away from the traditional European stories and using the story of a female warrior, but for invention and doing something different A Bug's Life had it all over the House of Mouse.
A Bug's Life didn't have quite the all star casting that Toy Story enjoyed. Interestingly enough, a number of the actors had bigger things ahead of them. One big exception was Phyllis Diller as the Queen Ant, her career was largely at an end by this point. I found it interesting that her pet was an aphid. Aphids were also in Antz, but they were snacks for the ants, as they are in nature.
Kevin Spacey as the leader of the grasshoppers; Hopper was also another fine bit of voice casting, as he has that menace in his voice. He'd done The Usual Suspects when he voiced Hopper, but most of his biggest work, including American Beauty was still ahead of him. I actually thought of two other actors who could have also done Hopper justice. One was James Woods, but as he'd just voiced Hades in Disney's Hercules the year before he probably wouldn't have been considered. The other was Christopher Walken, but he voiced a character in Antz. Shame, I would have really liked to have heard what Walken could do with Hopper.
Richard Kind was Hopper's brother and lieutenant Molt. He played the same sort of bumbling type that he's made a career out of and he was even drawn to resemble the actor.
Julia Louis-Dreyfuss played Atta, the queen in waiting, and Flik's love interest. She was a familiar voice at the time, because she played Elaine Benes in Seinfeld. She later became the star of her own show with Veep.
The cute little queen ant; Dot, was voiced by child actress Hayden Panettiere. Panetitere would later make a name for herself as Claire 'the cheerleader' in Heroes and then Juliet Barnes in Nashville.
Veteran actor Roddy McDowall played a rather cultured ant called Soil.
The circus had a couple of names amongst it's cast. A pre Ice Age Dennis Leary was Francis, the male ladybug with the hair trigger temper, Madeline Kahn was Gypsy the moth, David Hyde Pierce voiced Slim the stick insect and would go on to find fame as Frasier Crane's brother Niles in Frasier, Pixar regular John Ratzenberger turned up as the circus owner P.T Flea. One decision that didn't really work for me was Jonathan Harris as Manny the preying mantis, it's largely because his voice is so strongly identified as Dr. Zachary Smith from Lost in Space that I can't hear him as anything else.
Unlike Toy Story where the lead was a bona fide star, the lead of Flik was voiced by Dave Foley, not unknown, but also not with the profile of a Tom Hanks.
If anything A Bug's Life was an even bigger triumph than Toy Story and proved that Pixar was not a one trick pony.