Welcome to the Pixar Rewind! Over the next couple of weeks, we at Rotoscopers will be analyzing every Pixar film ever, and what makes each one so great. At the end of the series, and after the release of ‘Inside Out’ we will have a fan vote to determine which film is the best of them all!
It isn’t easy to match success. The “sophomore slump” is something that has haunted Hollywood (and our life in general) since time immemorial. It’s almost common knowledge that your second effort is all but doomed to live in the shadow of your first.
But here we are talking about Pixar Animation Studios, the legendary little animation studio that could. Pixar has proved time and time again that it is the exception to every rule. They do things differently.
1995’s Toy Story was a mega-success, propelling CGI animated films into the mainstream and becoming a part of pop culture to this day. How, then, could Pixar live up to the abysmally high expectations for their second effort? Simple: they went super small.
1998’s A Bug’s Life is Pixar moving on to a new adventure, trying their hardest not to rehash the elements that made Toy Story such a hit. The story of Bug’s Life is actually inspired by an Aesop’s Fable called “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, a classic moral story which pits the hardworking ants against the lazy, dominating grasshoppers. The movie follows Flik, an ant who is an oddball inventor and someone who doesn’t really fit in (sound familiar?). When things in the ant colony go wrong, Flik takes the help of a rag-tag team of circus bugs in order to fight the grasshoppers on behalf of “oppressed ants everywhere.”
Three years after Toy Story, it’s easy to notice all the technological innovations and advancements in this film. The animators developed a radical new “Bugcam” which helped them to view things from the bugs’ perspective (literally a tiny camera on Lego wheels!) Another notable innovation was the crowd shots. This was arguably the first time crowds (here, a mass of ants) had been shown in a CGI film, numbering up to 800 ants in a single shot. Finally, the environments are truly stunning, even today. Watching the film recently, it’s hard to believe that this movie is seventeen years old. The grass, trees, sunshine, rocks, underground shots, and the rain all look amazing and not at all dated.
The best thing about A Bug’s Life is Pixar’s commitment to making it an original story. While still basically a buddy movie, it has a bigger scale and a more epic scope than Toy Story. The themes of cooperation, out-of-the-box thinking, and of course, being yourself, while common, shine on their own. The film benefits from having a large cast of colorful characters. Flik is the oddball protagonist, while Princess Atta is the love interest (the closest Pixar has ever come to a proper romantic relationship). Hopper is a worthy and terrifying villain and raises the stakes convincingly. Then we have the circus troupe: Heimlich, Tuck and Roll, Slim, Francis, Manny, Gypsy, Rosie, and Dim. Each one with a quirk that is more endearing and hilarious than the last. It’s a big canvas, filled with a plethora of memorable characters. Pixar’s commitment to casting voice actors that fit the character is evident here as well. The voices match the character personalities perfectly. (Fun fact: Did you know it was Hayden Panettiere of Heroes fame who voiced Dot?)
There is one element that does feel rehashed, and that is the music. Randy Newman also worked on Toy Story (giving us “You’ve Got A Friend In Me”, the beloved friendship song), and his work on A Bug’s Life sounds very similar. The main song “Time of Your Life” basically has the same jazz vibe and structure as “You’ve Got A Friend In Me”. This isn’t a bad thing (the soundtrack is good!), but it’s noticeable. Another factor that irks me personally is the character designs. Yes, this was made at a time when CGI characters had not been truly mastered, but the ant designs are so hard to love. They look robotic, mechanical, and stiff. The same thing applies to Hopper and his crew. They just look freaky. I get that they are insects, and therefore are not supposed to look “cute”, but still. It’s something that kind of bugs me every time I watch this movie and prevents it from being truly “great.” (Bugs me… geddit?).
I have to devote at least a paragraph to why A Bug’s Life tends to be overlooked or forgotten. Quite honestly, it’s just too ordinary. Yes, it does have bursts of creativity and genius, but we cannot avoid inevitable comparisons to Toy Story. It also doesn’t help that chronologically, Bug’s is awkwardly wedged between two masterpieces: Toy Story and Toy Story 2. There is little in this film that truly sticks with you. It’s a fun movie, but never tugs at the heartstrings. It doesn’t make you sit up and think. It doesn’t get you excited to watch it over and over again. It’s just…good, while we all know that Pixar is capable of excellence.
A Bug’s Life is that movie that is always ignored in Pixar discussions. Everyone seems to forget it even though it exists. Which is a little sad, because this is a really good movie. Is it great? No. It does have its flaws, and it isn’t as witty or quotable or memorable as Toy Story or Finding Nemo. However, in the history of Pixar, we can’t ignore the large impact this film had. It was still a big box office hit and really cemented Pixar’s status as the “new” animation wonder.
Is the underrated A Bug’s Life your favorite Pixar movie? What are your thoughts on it?
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Edited by: Kelly Conley