Film Review: Maya the Bee Movie

The century-old European cartoon insect scores her first CGI feature, which likely won’t generate much buzz stateside.
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Launched out of the hive in 1912 by her creator, German storyteller Waldemar Bonsels, Maya the Bee has spent the past 103 years circling the globe, appearing in a variety of children’s books, TV series and even an opera that have been produced in such diverse locations as Germany, Japan and Austria. The one country this plucky insect hasn’t pollinated is America, where she remains a cult character on the level of such vintage staples of European cartooning as Tintin and Asterix. That’s why Maya’s first animated feature has been produced abroad, in a cross-continental collaboration between the German company Studio 100 (the animation house behind a 2012 TV show on which the film is based) and Australia’s Flying Bark Productions. After rolling out in overseas markets last fall and in early 2015, Maya the Bee Movie is finally reaching a limited number of U.S. screens courtesy of Shout! Factory, a well-known, well-respected curator of domestic and international curiosities.

For those not familiar with the title character’s history, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that Maya the Bee Movie—which is being released here with the lineup of Aussie voiceover actors intact—is just a loose remake of Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. Frankly, the resemblance isn’t that far off. Flik the Ant and Maya the Bee may belong to different families of insects, but they share a similar interest in departing from the herd, establishing themselves as distinct individuals rather than just another face in the crowd. Both also are cast out of their colonies and spend some time in the wilderness, before returning just in time to confront a threat in the form of grasshoppers and hornets, respectively. But Maya the Bee Movie departs from A Bug’s Life (and, for that matter, its source material) in the way it approaches that conflict. In Bonsels’ original narrative, Maya’s intel on the impending hornet attack allows the bees to rally their army and soundly defeat the enemy. The film version, on the other hand, turns this World War I-era good-vs.-evil conflict into a teachable lesson about tolerance.

Reflecting the post-9/11 climate, Maya the Bee Movie is also a gentle critique of warmongering leaders, in this case Buzzlina Von Beena (Jacki Weaver), the duplicitous Court Advisor of Maya’s colony, who initiates a quiet coup to overthrow the designated Queen Bee (Miriam Margolyes). Once in charge, Buzzlina exiles peppy Maya (Coco Jack Gillies) to the meadow outside the hive, where the young adventurer and her nervous pal Willy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) encounter a menagerie of insects, including red ants, spiders, moths and a singing, dancing grasshopper (Moulin Rouge’s Richard Roxburgh). She also forges an alliance with the young son of the hornet leader, and that relationship paves the way for Maya to show her colony that the ideal approach to bee/hornet relations would be to make friends, not war.

It’s a common, and not inaccurate, complaint that the majority of contemporary American animation playing on television or in movie theatres is blander than white bread. But Maya the Bee Movie shouldn’t be held up as a case where the rest of the world schooled us. (Recent Oscar nominees Song of the Sea and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya are stronger examples of that.) The film achieves a level of proficient mediocrity early on and hovers there for the rest of its slender running time, alternating moments of charming goofiness with stretches of extreme tedium. Part of the problem is the movie’s blandly impersonal CGI animation, which renders a bright-colored animated landscape that nevertheless lacks tactile texture and characters whose roly-poly cuteness comes off as vaguely creepy. Watched in the company of the movie’s target audience—a seven-year-old and a four-year-old—Maya the Bee Movie buzzed along without inspiring a moment of passionate response, either in its favor or against. Since the character has already been around this long, there’s no reason to suspect that she’ll be forgotten along with this forgettable movie. On the other hand, don’t expect a bidding war to break out between Disney and DreamWorks for the remake rights.

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