BUG'S LIFE, A
At the conclusion of the end credits for A Bug's Life, the follow-up to Toy Story from the folks at Pixar and Disney, is this curious assertion: 'The following film was shot entirely on location.' On the one hand, it's a cute little joke-there is, of course, no location but the computers within which the world on screen was created. On the other hand, it's an optimistic reach that comes about as close as possible to being earned-this computer-generated world is as vividly tangible, and in some ways you could argue more tangible, as many real-life locations shot with cameras. With the steady advances in computer technology applied to motion pictures, it's becoming increasingly redundant to praise the cinematic looks being produced by that technology. But the fact is, steps continue to be taken, and A Bug's Life is yet another step forward. The densely boisterous, richly colorful, organically amazing world created here is a relentless joy to behold. This movie's look has it over Toy Story, which relegated its animation to plastic, flat-surfaced objects with mechanical motions, and Antz, which dealt predominantly with multiple variations of a single figure. A Bug's Life creates a richly varied world of texture and color and movement, and insects, that has yet to be equaled in computer animation.
Of course, we're only talking about three fully computer-animated features made so far. A Bug's Life comes into the gate with a considerable burden of expectation as the third, with Pixar mastermind John Lasseter attempting to create a worthy successor to his previous Disney smash, and as the second film in less than two months to take a comic-adventurous look at the insect world. Comparisons, therefore, are inevitable. Overall, A Bug's Life falls squarely between Toy Story and Antz. Toy Story's animation can't compete with Bug's Life, but Toy Story is the superior film with its more richly conceived, original script. Antz is wittier, with its multitude of clever Woody Allen gags (Dave Foley can't compete), but it falls shorter in every other category. Besides having superior animation, A Bug's Life is more exciting and adventurous, and its joke palette has a broader kid-to-adult range than that found in the more adult-oriented Antz.
Getting their differences out of the way, the plots of the two insect movies are striking in their similarities. Each focuses on an ant colony, and on one ant in particular trying to stand above the crowd. They each concern the attempt to save the colony from a malevolent force, with the featured ant also trying to reach romantic bliss with a princess, soon-to-be-queen ant. The plots vary only in getting from point A to B-Antz borrows from the anti-fascism Metropolis outline, while Bug's Life does a comic riff on The Seven Samurai. This particular colony seeks to defend itself from an impending attack of belligerent, food-greedy grasshoppers, and a resourceful, misunderstood ant named Flik ventures out beyond the colony's island home into the real insect world, where city bugs live the fast life. Flik looks to hire warriors to defend his home from the grasshoppers, but instead of samurai, he ends up retaining the services of a band of failed insect circus performers, which include a relentlessly jolly caterpillar always looking to eat, a saucy male ladybug repressing his maternal instincts, a big burly beetle, and a couple of obliviously gleeful Hungarian pill bugs, among others.
Some of these characters are more vividly drawn with the computer than they are with the script. Gloriously tactile figures abound, but the film has too many characters to fill them all with personality. But it puts the personality where it counts. The film is rich with playfully funny moments (like the psychological distress caused by a leaf falling into an ant line, or the insect circus Rube Goldberg-style stunts gone awry), the voices are well-cast (Kevin Spacey, in particular, uses his silkily sinister voice to full effect as the wicked leader of the grasshoppers), and there is visual adventure and excitement to spare. If anything, there's almost too much; the frenzy of slapstick gags and cleverly conceived action set-pieces gets a little overwhelming at times. But to be plagued by an embarrassment of riches is a nice problem to have, and A Bug's Life has nothing to be embarrassed about. Even though this is strictly diversionary fluff, lacking the resonating emotionality of a Toy Story or Babe, it's still an eye-popping good time. Two recommendations. See the documentary Microcosmos afterwards as a companion piece, with its bug's-eye view of the real-life insect world, to complete the circle of bug humanization-after seeing both films, you may never look at the little fellas the same way again. And, more importantly, don't even think about missing the end credits. Within them are contained further, hilarious evidence that what you're looking at on the screen are not computer-generated, two-dimensional fabrications, but living, breathing beings. Filmed entirely on location.
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