Finding Pixar- A Skeptic’s Journey: A Bug’s Life (1998)

A Bugs Life

This is the second part of an eleven part (maybe twelve part) series in which I chronologically explore the films of the Pixar Animation studio for the first time in my life while also exploring the studio’s history and what it was that kept me disinterested in it all these years.

When I watched Toy Story last month I was surprised at how familiar the movie felt; it was a movie that had so fully permeated pop culture that it felt like a movie I had already seen before my first viewing.  I knew I wouldn’t have the same experience with Pixar’s second film, A Bug’s Life, because I knew almost nothing about it aside from the fact that it was about bugs.  The film, which made almost as much money as Toy Story at the box office, seems to have not been talked about at all by anybody since 1998.  In fact I was kind of surprised when I read that it made as much money as it had, it certainly didn’t feel like a smash hit at the time and there haven’t exactly been Flik and Hopper toys floating around for the last ten years.  The lack of awareness about A Bug’s Life in comparison to Toy Story might simply speak to the film’s quality but it probably also has to do with the fact that there haven’t been two sequels to it in the course of a decade.  While Toy Story has been brought out for new generations of toddlers over time, A Bug’s Life just sort of gets forgotten, a marketing situation that might inform why Pixar is making sequels to a lot of its movies in the next few years.

The one thing people do seem to remember about A Bug’s Life is that it came out in direct competition with another Computer animated film about insects called Antz which was made by Pixar’s future arch rival Dreamworks Animation.  This was one of those strange Hollywood occurrences like Armageddon vs. Deep Impact and Dante’s Peak vs. Volcano where two movies with similar high concepts are made in the same year seemingly by coincidence.  I never ended up seeing either of the movies at the time, but the thing is, I remember being decidedly on team Antz at the time.  Of course I wasn’t particularly interested in either, but if someone had come to me and said “we’re taking you to a movie today, choose one of these two” I probably would have picked Antz because of the two movies it looked a lot smarter to me.  Of course at the tender age of eleven I didn’t know who Woody Allen was, but you could still tell that it was trying to be a more verbal and witty film than A Bug’s Life.  Go on Youtube and Take a look at the trailer for Antz. Not the most exciting thing in the world, and I wouldn’t call it laugh out loud funny either, but those Woody Allen jokes do come through and the whole thing feels like a fairly dignified project.  Now compare that to this trailer for A Bug’s Life. There’s some more exciting stuff there, but as far as comedy goes I’m seeing a bunch of broad slapstick, a urination joke, and a joke about fireflies having lights on their butts, and those are the jokes that kids tend to pick up and dwell on.  The joke at 2:09 about the caterpillar “wetting himself,” is one of the few things about the film that I do remember from T.V. advertising back in the day and I know it was the joke that all the kids picked up on.

Having finally seen the film, I can say that the comedy in it is indeed its weakest aspect.  The film is at its best when it functions as an adventure story, in fact the main goal of the film seems to have been to address one of the biggest complaints I had about Toy Story: that it felt small scale and unambitious compared to what Disney had been putting out around that time.  You can tell that the film’s scope has been increased from the moment it starts because the film is composed in a widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio (a format that Disney hadn’t used since 1985’s The Black Cauldron).  The film is also set in a much broader (albeit, technically microscopic) world, with “villages,” and “cities,” and “monstrous” birds in between.  There are also some pretty ambitious set pieces with entire armies of bugs clashing which are definitely a lot more impressive than an RC car heading down the least busy road in suburbia.

You can also tell that in the three years since Toy Story Pixar had improved their animation technology dramatically.   The film has a number of impressive settings like the anthill and the grass field, and there are other little improved touches like water effects and some great lighting coming off of a fire that occurs late in the film.  Of course this is still early in the evolution of computer animation, so certain aspects like the ground textures are still pretty ugly, and for a movie that’s about a group of ants you’d think they’d be able to convey that particular insect a little better (why are the male ants blue and the female ants pink? And why do they only have four limbs?), but overall this felt a lot more modern than Toy Story did in the animation department.

Visually I think this is a pretty good movie, and its ambition is appreciated, but the movie’s script is sub-par at best.  The model for the film is clearly Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai; a village under siege by bandits hires a handful of warriors in order to defend themselves.  The catch is that these “warriors” are actually circus performers who have only accepted this job because of a wacky misunderstanding… and that all the people are bugs.  Perhaps the film’s biggest weakness is that its main character, Flick, is really really really annoying.  In fact he’s one Caribean accent away from being an ant version of Jar-Jar Binks.  He’s shunned by his people (it’s a longo taleo but a small part of it would be, hesa… clumsy), and pretty much everything he does accomplish has to do with either comical misunderstanding or inadvertent physical comedy.  While Dave Foley’s voice work doesn’t quite reach Jar-Jar levels of stupidity, it doesn’t help make the character any more relatable, instead he just make him sound annoyingly over-enthusiastic and naïve; he’s like Tim Robbin’s character from The Hudsucker Proxy turned up to eleven.  In short, the guy is an idiot.  He didn’t deserve to save the day, he didn’t deserve to get the girl, and I actively rooted against him for large stretches of the movie.

Of course the entire premise of the film, that circus bugs were mistakenly brought to the village rather than warrior bugs, wouldn’t have occurred if Flick wasn’t such a fucktard.  Why does he think these are warriors?  Because they got in a bar fight and he couldn’t see their ineptitude because physical comedy kept him stuck outside only hearing the “fight.”  That might work on an episode of “Three’s Company,” but as a plot device which results in a major decision in a major motion picture it is laughable.  Even if you can get past that misunderstanding there is no way to justify these bugs going all the way to the island along with Flick without so much as asking for some details about their prospective job.  Advice for screenwriters: if your characters being smart enough to have a five minute conversation before embarking on a life changing adventure is going to make your script fall apart you are in deep shit.  No one would buy this kind of logic if this weren’t a cartoon; end of story.

The rest of the movie follows a pretty standard formula: you know that the circus bug’s charade as warriors is going to be exposed as a complication right before the third act, you know that this will result in Flick losing the clout he’s built up, and you know that he’s going to come back anyway to save the day and against all odds become a hero.  Amidst all this we’re greeted to a rather annoying subplot where a club of child-ants led by Princess Dot, all gather together in order to help with Flick’s plan.  It’s all rather superfluous and mostly seems to have been added in order to give children in the audience someone to relate to.  Oh, and speaking of Flick’s plan, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  He’s going to construct a model bird in order to scare the grasshoppers away, and even if it worked it would only be a temporary solution.  What happens when the grasshoppers come back the next year, or even the next day?  Are they going to believe that a bird just happens to still be there?  In don’t think so.

So, this is obviously not a particularly well written film, in fact it gives me a newfound respect for some of what Toy Story did.  In retrospect that movies seems pretty wittily written with relatively likable characters and with a structure that seemed relatively fresh.  But for all I’ve badmouthed A Bug’s Life, I wouldn’t say I hated it per se.  The movie held up on a visual level (at least for its time) and is moderately entertaining if you can overlook its plot holes and occasional forays into childishness.  I’d say it’s probably on par with a slightly below average summer blockbuster like Transformers or something.  What it most certainly isn’t, is the work of masterful filmmakers and that is what the Pixar guys have been built up to be.  To be fair though, this is not one of the movies that most Pixar-enthusiasts are going to trot out in defense of their studio.  In fact, pretty much its only defenders are die-hards who insist that the studio has a perfect record (something they most assuredly do not given this movie), the rest just kind of ignore it.  This is early in Pixar’s run and I don’t expect great filmmakers to always knock one out of the park within their first two works, but they better step up pretty soon or this is going to be a tougher project to get through than I expected.

The Short Program: Geri’s Game

A Bug’s Life marked the first time that a brand new short (rather than a recycled old one) would play in front of a Pixar film, starting a tradition that’s with the company to this day.  The idea of attaching shorts to the front of a major motion picture released in 1998 was actually a fairly novel idea and a gutsy one at that.  The idea of course harkened back to the early days of film, when movies would routinely play as part of a program that would include a selection of newsreels and short subjects (including animated shorts), but that tradition was a long dead until Pixar sort of revived it.   The shorts themselves have probably benefited the company, allowing them to exercise their creativity without the pressures of a feature film, giving them a place to test out experimental technology, and they’re also a place to get miniature ideas out of their systems.  What’s more this little tradition of attaching the shorts to their features obviously gives them a quality excuse to keep churning the things out.

This particular short, Geri’s Game (which is incidentally also the name of a Stephen King novel about bondage sex), is probably one of the company’s most acclaimed shorts, earning them an Academy Award (their second from last in the category).  It’s pretty easy to see why they won it too; this is an excellent little piece for what it is.  Like most Pixar shorts, this is a nearly silent high concept gag executed to perfection.  The piece depicts an old man sitting in a park playing a game of chess with himself by moving from one side of the board to the other in order to make a move on each side.  Eventually editing takes over and it seems like he’s playing and interacting with another person rather than himself, it’s almost a precursor to the iconic Gollum/Sméagol scenes from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

Though this was the second short that the public would see attached to one of Pixar’s features, it was actually their fifth canonical short and was made a full eight years (and one feature film) after their previous short, Kick Knack (more on that one and some of their other early shorts in future installments) and the difference this eight years made is readily apparent.  The park that the old man sits in is out of focus, but otherwise this seems like a fully realized environment, at least the table and chairs look real (although there is a certain strangeness to some of the chess pieces).  The old man certainly doesn’t look “real,” but he moves realistically, is fully expressive, and has very real looking clothes.  In its own limited capacity, I might go so far as to say it has more impressive animation than the movie it was attached to.

So far, it’s been the Pixar sorts that I can whole heartedly support; why is that?  I suppose it’s because they’ve come closer to what I’ve been promised from Pixar; it’s universal entertainment for “everyone.” They feel like really clever little ideas that have been refined to their essence and they also don’t need to pander to some of the more unfortunate aspects of young audience’s senses of humor.

Source Code(4/3/2011)

            In 2009 a low budget science fiction film called Moon debuted at the Sundance film festival and went on to gross a modest five million dollars at the box office.  That was barely enough money to cover the film’s budget, but it was popular with an influential crowd of film goers and seemed to become an instant cult classic.  I wasn’t as infatuated with the film as some, but I had a lot of respect for its low key aesthetic and the command that first time director Duncan Jones was able to assert over the movie.  At the very least the film was able to get Jones on Hollywood’s radar and allowed him to make a bigger budget follow-up, another cleverly contained science fiction movie about the effects of technology on an individual thrust into a cruel situation with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

            One could say that the film is like Groundhog Day except that instead of reliving an entire day, the main character is reliving eight minutes.  Those eight minutes occurred on a Chicago-area commuter train and culminated in the exploding of a bomb that killed everyone on board the train.  There’s more to it than that though, for one thing the main character isn’t reliving his own life, rather he is reliving the life of someone else who he’s jumped into “Quantum Leap” style.  The technology allowing this is called “source code” and it’s the only science fiction element of this film which otherwise seems to be set in the present.  The man doing the “jumping” is Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a bewildered pilot who was in Afghanistan before he began jumping into the lives of dead people.  He’s being told by a commanding officer on a computer screen named Capt. Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) that his mission in these eight minute jumps is to find out who was behind the bombings so that a second attack later in the day could be averted. 

            I was relieved that in Stevens’ second run through the eight minute sequence that he seemed to be ahead of the audience, willing to simply do his mission, that he understood the fact that he simply needed to accomplish the mission and disregard the ghosts around him.  It was refreshing to know that I wouldn’t have to sit through an hour of Jake Gyllenhaal being confused about his situation and taking forever to get the job done because he couldn’t wrap his head around the science fiction concept that the audience understood in the first twenty minutes.  Whenever movies waste their time with nonsense like that it can be infuriating and I was glad to see that this movie wasn’t going down that road… or was it.  As it turns out I had given the movie too much credit too soon.  As soon as Gyllenhaal realizes that he’s actually leaping into the mind of someone and not living in a computer simulation he turns into exactly the idiot I was afraid he’d be, wasting precious time trying to affect individual characters rather than simply getting his job done.

            The thing about this movie is that the central mystery (who set the bomb) is painfully easy for Gyllenhaal to solve and when he finally focuses in on the objective at hand he gets his answer in about five minutes, but it takes forever for him to do that because he keeps getting sidetracked by irrelevant nonsense, particularly the brunette sitting in front of him named Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan) every time he begins the eight minute sequence.   It seems to take forever for the character to realize that he can’t save this woman or anyone else using the technology he’s in and he keeps on inexplicably trying.  I would be more forgiving of this if it hadn’t been established that real lives were at stake outside of the simulation, but that is established early, and you can’t help but get angry at this character when he puts those lives at risk as he wastes time chasing simulated pussy instead of getting his job done.

            This dichotomy of putting up with Stevens’ time wasting bullshit isn’t so bad in the film’s first half, where you’re still sort of wrapped up in the mystery and kind of enjoying the concept.  The film almost feels like a video game (and not in a pejorative sense) in that you’re watching the character try out different solutions until you finally reach the correct sequence that will give you the “good” ending.  But a lot of this fun really just exits the room in the film’s second half, which is consumed by rank and implausible sentimentality.  I don’t want to give anything away, but a key side character makes a decision for entirely sappy reasons toward the end of the film which I am quite simply philosophically opposed to.  This feels like a complete 180 from the ambiguous morality that Jones introduced into Moon that I can only assume he was trying to give Hollywood what he thought it wanted.

            I suppose I’m coming off a bit more negative than I mean to be, possibly because the movie was a lot more enjoyable as I watched it than it was in retrospect.  There really is a pretty good concept at the center of the film and there are a number of parts to the movie that really are enjoyable.  Gyllenhaal gives a good, if not overly special performance and the rest of the cast is pretty good as well.  Jones does a good job making you care about some of the personalities on the train and there is a certain weight to knowing that all these people you’re coming to know are, in fact, doomed.  The film also has a rather paradoxical ending that is at once sappy and also rather grim depending on the mindset you use while watching it.  For all my reservations, I still kind of feel compelled to recommend it given that its main competition right now includes the likes of Hop, Battle: Los Angeles, and Red Riding Hood.  But in an environment with more options I’d probably delegate this to rental status.  It’s worth watching in spite of its flaws if only to keep your eye on Duncan Jones, who I still think has potential, but if he’s not careful he could easily turn into the next M. Night Shyamalan.

*** out of Four