Pixar is now one of the world’s leading forces in animated features, but back in 1998 they were just getting started. They had released Toy Story – the first full-length computer animated feature – three years prior and revolutionized the animation industry, but A Bug’s Life was out to prove that Toy Story wasn’t a fluke, and that Pixar was here to stay. At the time it did just that, giving Pixar another hit that ensured they would be a staying power in animated cinema. In retrospect, however, it is easy to see A Bug’s Life as one of the studio’s lesser films.
Taking a page from The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven, A Bug’s Life tells the story of an ant colony under oppression by a gang of grasshoppers, lead by the appropriately-named Hopper (Kevin Spacey). Every year the ants surrender most of their food to the grasshoppers in exchange for their safety. One such offering goes afoul when an ant named Flik (Dave Foley) accidentally destroys said offering. Without their expected food, the grasshoppers grow angry, and they demand a second offering as compensation. The ants have no choice but to agree, even though a second offering would lead the ants to starvation.
Flik takes it upon himself to find an alternate solution to the problem, and sets off to find a band of warrior bugs to fight off the grasshoppers, so that the ants can finally live in peace. The catch here is that, unlike Seven Samurai and Magnificent Seven, the warriors Flik ends up recruiting aren’t warriors at all, but circus performers.
A Bug’s Life is a fun story that is littered with entertaining characters, particularly the aforementioned circus performers, which include but are not limited to Francis the ladybug, whom everyone mistakes for a woman on the sole grounds that he’s a ladybug, Heimlich the caterpillar, who has a limitless appetite, and Slim the walkingstick, who prides his thespian abilities despite constantly being cast as a prop.
The only downside to A Bug’s Life’s story and characters is that, when compared to Pixar’s later works, they all feel a bit basic. A Bug’s Life doesn’t capture the same level of emotion in its storytelling or the depth of character of films like Ratatouille or Finding Nemo (or even its predecessor Toy Story), and in many ways it feels like a pretty straightforward animated adventure. Exceptionally crafted, but straightforward nonetheless.
Countless CG animated films since have used the whole “misfit hero learns to defy convention and follow his heart” setup, and a lot of that actually started here with A Bug’s Life (which strangely makes A Bug’s Life more imitated than Toy Story as far as narrative is concerned). It’s better than most of what it inspired, but it’s also a bit on the generic side, lacking the extra layers that Pixar made with Woody and Buzz Lightyear.
While A Bug’s Life animation may not be as advanced as what we see today, it has visually aged much better than most CG animated fair, which can probably be attributed for Pixar’s love of caricatured character designs over ‘realistic’ ones. The film is still a colorful treat to the eyes, and the character animations express a fine attention to the differences in the insects’ behaviors, while not at the expense of more exaggerated animated touches.
The many things Pixar was able to do with their bug-based world is impressive. There are countless sight gags and puns that take advantage of the film’s bug perspective. At the same time, tackling the world of insects isn’t quite as imaginative as Toy Story or many of Pixar’s subsequent films (it is, however, a more robust concept than anthropomorphic cars). It’s fun and Pixar makes the most of it, but I’m afraid a talking bug movie just doesn’t capture the imagination as strongly as something like a world of closet monsters and the like.
When it comes to pure entertainment value, A Bug’s Life delivers with a good story and humorous characters. But it is also proof that not everything Pixar makes stands on a pedestal of greatness. It’s charming, if maybe not remarkable.