Under the large-format microscope, with the added flourish of 3D, Bugs! is an extraordinary inspection of a universe rarely invaded by motion picture cameras. You've never been here before. It lays the previous title-holder (and 1971's Oscar-winning documentary, The Hellstrom Chronicles) very much in the shade, just on sheer technical virtuosity alone.

Peter Parks, who designed the microsystem used to explore this tiny world, recently received a technical Academy Award based largely on the work he applied here. It's remarkable--and the other director of photography, Sean Phillips, adds literally a third dimension to this monumentally magnified (like, 250,000 times its actual size) kingdom.

Out of a billion possibilities, director Mike Slee and his co-scripter, Abby Aron, have narrowed their focus to just two insects, concocting a kind of plot that traces their parallel universes from birth to fateful (and fatal) encounter. You can forget about any disclaimer that No Insect Was Harmed During the Filming. Predator vs. prey is the oldest story here, an almost inevitable ritual played out by--to use the Latin terms--Hierodula, a praying mantis, and Papilio, a caterpillar that evolves into a too-beautiful-to-live butterfly.

Both are born (for purposes of storytelling, on the same day) in the wilds of Borneo. Sitting in attendance at the birth of the mantis and its hundreds of siblings, watching them ascend to the underside of a leaf, amounts to an astonishing spectacle. Detailed lensing was achieved after principal location photography in an artificial rainforest methodically reconstructed in Oxford, England. Bugs were bused in for their close-ups.

Dame Judi Dench supplies the informed narration elegantly and effortlessly, seeming to revel in the facts and stats she is imparting. Composer John Lunn jazzes up the visuals with lively music, and the credits crawl by to a delightful ditty from Disney's Summer Magic, delivered by Burl Ives: the Sherman Brothers' memorable "Ugly Bug Ball."

--Harry Haun