Both computer-animated fables -- the former from DreamWorks and special-effects house PDI, the latter from Disney and Pixar Animation Studios -- are set in ant colonies threatened by scary insects (termites in "Antz," grasshoppers in "A Bug's Life"). Both have different-drummer heroes who step out of line and save the day. Curiously, the reddish-brown population of "Antz" had six legs; the cuddly protagonists of "A Bug's Life" are colored a lavender-gray pastel and have only four limbs.
Each is a diverting and well-made spectacle, but whereas the sophisticated "Antz" had a cross-generational appeal and a witty adult subtext about conformity, the more juvenile humor of "A Bug's Life" seems to be going almost exclusively for the Happy Meals crowd.
"Antz" opened with its neurotic arthropod hero (voiced by Woody Allen) whining on a psychiatrist's couch. When we meet the star of "A Bug's Life," he's dropping an in-jokey reference to Disney's feature-length kiddie-cartoon "The Lion King."
"It's one of those 'Circle of Life' kinds of things," cracks Flik (Dave Foley), explaining why his fellow ants are forced to donate a portion of their yearly harvest to the thug-like grasshoppers, led by the vicious Hopper (Kevin Spacey). Before you know it, the klutzy Flik has accidentally destroyed the colony's amassed crops, enraging not only Hopper and his hungry pals but Flik's exhausted fellow colonists. Banished from Ant Island by an irate queen (Phyllis Diller), the misfit sets off for the big city to find reinforcements to defend his home from the long-legged extortionists. Through a misunderstanding, the ace band of mercenaries he thinks he is recruiting turns out to be an inept troupe (not troop) of performing circus bugs, featuring a stick bug (David Hyde Pierce), a dung beetle (Brad Garrett), a gypsy moth (Madeline Kahn), a ladybug (Denis Leary) and a caterpillar (Joe Ranft).
The punning, borscht-belt humor comes fast and furious in the teeming metropolis where Flik first encounters the bungling urban buskers: A fly sits begging in the gutter next to a sign saying "Kid pulled my wings off"; in a restaurant another bug shouts, "Waiter, I'm in my soup!"; two mosquitoes in a bar order "Bloody Marys, type O-positive." Many of the one-liners are groan-inducing, but there are enough of them that do work to keep the scene zippy.
It's an infusion of zip that's sorely needed, because the chief deficiency of "A Bug's Life" so far is its blandness. I know all ants look alike, but there's a visual uniformity to this latest batch that makes it hard to tell one from the other by sight. Thank God for the arrival of the colorful city critters!
The film's other weakness is the low-octane vocal performances of its leading cast. In "Antz," you had Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman and Sylvester Stallone. "Bug," on the other hand, makes do with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Kevin Spacey and the little-known child actress Hayden Panettiere in the corresponding roles of love interest, heavy and best friend. They're all adequate, to be sure, but they somehow lack the oomph, the edge, of the earlier film's stars. And the milquetoastian Foley is no Woody Allen, to say the least.
Still, most young children won't even notice the lack of personality. The action-figure-ready supporting cast will provide sufficient dazzle with their silly circus slapstick, and many wee audience members will closely identify with the last-minute heroics of the toddler ant Dot (Panettiere).
Parents and other adults, however, looking for a little more return on their intellectual investment are advised to stay through the closing credits, where director John Lasseter has inserted a hilarious series of fake animated "outtakes."
If you can talk your fidgeting charges into sitting still for an extra minute, the irreverent, self-referential bonus humor of these last few seconds will be for many the best thing about a film that aims to please only by aiming for the ankle-biters.
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