Sandwiched between the impressive, plaything-themed one-two punch of the first two Toy Story movies, it’s fair to say that 1998’s A Bug’s Life has become Pixar’s forgotten film. Rarely spoken of in the same glowing terms as other one-off adventures like Wall-E or Inside Out, A Bug’s Life still manages to include typically gorgeous imagery, fun characters and all robust humour the legendary animation studio is renowned for, so why is it so forgotten? Is it because it followed that curious 90’s trend of being released in the same year as a virtually identical movie (Dreamwork’s Antz) a thereby forced into some, weird, Hollywood dick measuring contest? Is it because insects – no matter how adorably designed – just aren’t as loveable as toys, cars, fish or trash robots? Whatever the reason is it’s obviously evaded me, as this version of the fable of the Ant & the Grasshopper (reimagined as a farcical melding of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai meets The Three Amigos!) has always been a favorite of mine right from the start.
It’s nearing the end of the season and a beleaguered colony of ants are straining to make their routine “protection” offering of food to a biker gang of mean-ass grasshoppers. As the neurotic Princess Atta frets about assuming leadership, well-meaning but catastrophically clumsy inventor ant, Flick unwittingly dumps the colony in the deepest of do-do when his latest contraption accidently wipes out the entirety of the grasshopper’s offering.
Pissed that their meal ticket isn’t there on time, the gang’s anti-ant leader, Hopper decrees that the colony now owe him DOUBLE the food which means there won’t be enough for the ants when winter comes around. Feeling somewhat responsible (probably because he IS responsible), Flick volunteers to out into the big wide world in order to find warrior bugs to help them fight off Hopper and his goons, a decision that is met with whole hearted approval by the colony as they are sick to the back teeth of the well meaning innovator.
Arriving in the big city Flick runs into a gang hapless performers recently fired from the circus of P.T. Flea and immediately mistakes them for a team of fighting mercenaries thanks to an accidental bar fight that he only witnessed the end of. To make matters even worse (it’snot a Pixar film if vastvamounts of stress aren’t involved), the dim witted circus troupe think Flick wants them to come and perform their act at his colony and so a comedy of errors starts to unfold until is slowly dawns on everyone that a horrible mistake has occured.
Ever the optimist (and desperate not to look bad in front of Princess Atta) Flick desides to lean even further into the lie and concocts a plan with the performers to vanquish Hopper once an for all but can this plucky little bug’s luck hold out or will his insectoid subterfuge crash and burn the minute Hopper returns?
While it can’t hope to match Toy Story for sheer emotional resonance and granite somid storytelling, A Bug’s Life scores huge with some truly incredible world building that visually is light years beyond what Pixar managed with their premiere feature. Virtually every frame includes some sort of ingenious visual pun like a hobo bug sadly playing his legs like a fiddle in order to get change or Flick knocking up a telescope out of a rolled up blade of grass with a drop of water inside and even the foley artists get into the act with the beating wings of Hopper sounding like big fat Harley or a small bird’s tweet sounding like the roar of a T-Rex to our diminutive heroes.
While sticking to the tried and true Toy Story formula of relying on an ensemble cast, the various characters of Pixar’s sophomore effort never really achieved the fame of some of the other movies released by the animation giant which is a shame as the weird and wonderful bugs that fill out the story (played mostly by a bustling cast of prime-time sitcom players) are a lot of fun to spend time with. Take Slim, the temperamental stick insect thespian or Francis, a male ladybug who is prone to PG-rated bouts of toxic masculinity everytime someone mixes up his gender, or Heinrich the hungry, hungry caterpillar who sports a jolly German accent for some reason.
Admittedly while there’s nothing here that’s groundbreaking – except of course for the animation back in those primordial mists of 1998 – everything is warm and comforting as Randy Newman’s novel score and the action beats are smart and orginal; witness an aerial chase as Hopper pursues Atta and Flick through a rain storm as deadly as a mortar attack or the troupe royally screwing up their big finish worryingly entitled “FLAMING DEATH”.
Yes, many subsequent Pixar flicks may be smarter and more challenging (it’s no Inside Out, for example) but for a movie released in the studio’s early days it’s as solid as they come and it’s relative lack of fan base is quite simply repugn-ant.