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Something Pesky
About 'A Bug's Life'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 1998

  Movie Critic

A Bug's Life
Disney's latest computer-animated release is "A Bug's Life." (Disney)

John Lasseter; Andrew Stanton
Dave Foley;
Kevin Spacey;
Julia Louis-Dreyfuss;
Phyllis Diller;
Bonnie Hunt;
David Hyde Pierce;
Madeline Kahn;
Denis Leary;
Roddy McDowall;
John Ratzenberger
Running Time:
1 hour, 34 minutes
A few "I'm scareds" were heard in the audience
You know that feeling? You're lying there at night trying to get to sleep and you feel these . . . tiny little feet . . . six of them . . . lightly scuttling across your body and you go Whatthehellisthat!!! jumping like you're shot out of a cannon, scratching frantically even in midair before heading toward the shower to soak under a scouring blast of 145-degree water. You know that feeling? Well, get used to it, because "A Bug's Life" produces that feeling as if amplified by 300-watt speakers. Ewwww, bugs.

The film comes from Disney via the miracle process known as computer generation, which is not as roly-poly and weightless as conventional animation, but not as clumsy, gross and difficult to manage as reality. "Toy Story" was the best feature done this way, but then until "A Bug's Life," it was the only feature done this way. It's still the best feature done this way.

Computer generation, mostly used in Eyewitness News logos, creates a strange near-reality, the illusion of depth, space, weight, movement, detail, but all in stylized forms that seem closer to artistic than to realistic. Somehow you know that you're looking at a thing that doesn't exist except as coded blips on someone's hard drive.

Technically, "A Bug's Life" takes this process and really wrings it out. The film is a festival of tiny brilliances: creatures of amazing construction and agility that quiver to life, perspectives of the world at the grass level that are truly awesome, suggesting Heaven in a very small space, and still trickier gimcracks, like water droplets the size of globes that quiver as they diffuse the light passing through them.

But a lot of this is simple showing off that somehow doesn't add up to a brilliant movie.

For one thing, the process itself is subtly dislocating, just riding the I-don't-believe-it line. Possibly kids who've spent the hours they should have been reading actual books in front of a video game will have less difficulty with it than I did. Still, I felt more that I was looking at a sample reel than in the presence of an actual story.

Clever as it is, the film lacks charm. One problem: too many bugs. Second, bigger world for two purposes: to feed birds and to irk humans.

The plot seems extremely familiar, based as it is on "The Seven Samurai" by way of "The Magnificent Seven" as further evolved in a popular comedy. I can almost see see the pitch meeting: "Michael, you're gonna love this: We remake 'The Three Caballeros,' only with ants!"

Nasty grasshoppers are intimidating the docile ants of Ant Island, robbing them each spring of the majority of their grain harvest. The ants, it would seem, are defenseless, especially since in the interests of political correctness, soldier ants have been demobbed and sent away, perhaps to await a remake of "Them!" What remains are pacifists and cowards and whiners, so that when the grasshoppers arrive, the ants simply run around screaming. The grasshoppers – fearsomely fronted by Hopper, a large beast represented by Kevin Spacey's oily voice – demand their tribute; alas, the dreamer ant Flik has spilled it all into a mudhole. The hoppers give the ants the rest of the summer to come up with the spores and seeds that will get them through the winter.

So Flik goes off in search of warriors to protect them. Toshiro Mifune, Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen being dead, and Martin Short being on Broadway, he manages to mistake a few bugs in a flea circus for fighters, and he hires them. For their part, they think they're being offered a gig.

"Toy Story" had the advantage of a more vigorous story line, and two strong vocal talents in the lead roles, Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. No voice in particular dominates "A Bug's Life" with the exception of Spacey's. Dave Foley, who sounds the notes of hero ant Flik, makes almost no impression at all. He could be any morning deejay between here and Minsk. None of the other performers makes an impression, including the normally vivid Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the role of the bland princess Atta.

Another miscalculation that distances the viewer from the film is possibly ontological: It has to do with the metaphorical meaning of ants. Traditionally, ants are used symbolically as images of a totalitarian organization of society. These guys – co-directors John Lasseter (who won an Oscar for "Toy Story") and Andrew Stanton (who wrote it) – see ant society as a kind of merrily dysfunctional matriarchal utopia where everybody knows and loves his place. All in all, "A Bug's Life" is pretty much for the birds.

The images of large and ferocious grasshoppers bedeviling tiny, pitiful ants are quite intense and more than a few "I'm scareds" were heard in the audience at a preview. "There, there," said the kids to their fathers, "it'll be all right."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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