It certainly seems as if Pixar can do no wrong. Anyone who has watched the feature length documentary on the origins of this remarkable company on the Wall-E disc will know exactly how inventive, hard working and diligent these film makers are. Toy Story was, of course, a huge success, a wholesome family film with values and comedy that was well written and immensely enjoyable, oh and it happened to be computer generated too. Once it was released, computer generated film started to find there way into other studios, principally Dreamworks, whose first production was a film about ants and their struggle to survive. Filled, as it was, with many famous names - or voices - the story was one of an individual ant that climbs the social columns to save the colony from itself. It went head to head with another ant related film, and the subject of tonight's feature, A Bug's Life. As strong and inventive as Antz was, it didn't have that one thing to make it a resounding success. It wasn't Pixar. Pixar isn't an individual, rather a collaboration of like minded story tellers and animators whose prime directive is to get across a good story. Once that is achieved then the computer animation, invention and advancements come into play. For Pixar constantly push the boundaries of their medium; in the case of A Bug's Life it was crowds, the fact of having hundreds of individual characters on screen 'doing their own thing' whilst simultaneously behaving as a cohesive unit. Without this, innovation battle scenes, such as those seen in Lord of the Rings trilogy, would never have been possible. A Bug's Life hit the cinema in 1998, three years after Pixar's film debut, to a rapturous reception. Given a slightly larger budget it grossed incredible amounts at the box office, both domestic and abroad and cemented Pixar as a force to be reckoned with.
Being the story tellers that they are, director John Lasseter and co-directed Andrew Stanton tell the tale of a colony of ants, subjugated by grasshoppers into providing food for 'protection', and how one ant, Flik (Dave Foley), whose inventions generally cause havoc, accidentally ruins the year's harvest, seeks out and hires 'warrior bugs' to help fight off the oppressors before uniting the ants themselves against them. Credited with 'original story' it is clearly not, there are shades of Kurosawa, Peckinpah and John Landis, however if you are going to 'borrow' then borrow from the best, and that has certainly been done here. We follow the story through Flik and in doing so reduce the story to a personal level; Flik has a big, if misunderstood, heart, his actions are to better the colony, lead them from oppression - he is not looking for fame, fortune or even recognition, as presented his actions are selfless. Once he hires the circus bugs there is a real sense of optimism, the colony as a whole expresses joy at this new era in their lives, but again bringing home the intimacy is highlighted by the blossoming friendship between Flik and Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). The inclusion of Dot (a very young but soon to be hero Hayden Panettiere) and the troop of Blueberries as well as the above cinematic tricks were ways to appeal to a younger demographic; it is the only time that Pixar have done this - in any of their films to date. It's not a criticism per sa rather it highlights that they were still learning their craft and it was only to get better as their experience grew. It is because of this I find A Bug's Life the weakest of their cinematic output. This is not helped by their choice in composers, Randy Newman. After his triumph in Toy Story (and even better score for Toy Story 2) it may have been an obvious choice, however, this film needed something bigger; the battle between Hopper and the Ants, the drama of the bird attack, the sheer scale of it all cries out for some epic bombast rather then his cutesy toe tapping. Whilst he certainly tries and on a certain level is kinda works, it comes back to the maturity, in that Pixar were aiming a little low for this film.
Disney are famous for having a crisis moment in their films, a tug at the heartstrings before giving us the feel good we so crave; it's in all their films - Pixar, at the time an offshoot of Disney - naturally continue this trend, look at Buzz's breakdown in Toy Story. It is continued here with the colonies discovery of Flik's mistake and subsequent banishment, then Dot's talking him around, but I feel that it doesn't have that certain tug that Toy Story, or any of their subsequent films, have; the emotional depth isn't quite there, as if aware of their intended audience Lasseter and Stanton pulled back a little. This wouldn't be the case with any of the films following where a deep emotional core was at the root of the structure and gave a resonance that has made Pixar such a strong film maker.
It is not a bad film by any means and as a follow up to Toy Story it stands proud, the technological advances alone show this. Take a look at the opening zoom of Ant Island, the grass in the wind, the bark on the tree, the individual grains of soil in the earth, and it gets better the further into the film you go; check out the detail to the insect exoskeletons, the scuff marks and dents, the fire of 'flaming death' the intricate structure of the model bird; there is some real vision here and it really shows up on Blu-ray. I mentioned before the crowd scenes, it's worth saying again quite how well seen these are, the hundreds of ants cheering the circus bugs, the stream of ants delivering the offering, the ants looking like, well, ants from the birds eye view of the launching platform. This is great stuff.
When all is said and done and the credits have rolled (with the terrific 'outtakes') the film can be called cute. That one word pretty much sums it up. It may be a technological marvel, be a decent enough follow up to Toy Story and it may have had a huge success at the box office, but looking back at what came after it, it sits at the bottom of the ladder. Still trod all over Antz though ....
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