The ants, under seige, have hatched a plan to be rid of their grasshopper foes... but the pressure is getting to Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus).
“Nobody really believes I can do this job,” she confesses. “They’re all watching me! Just, just…” “…Waiting for you to screw up?” suggests fellow hymenoptera Flik (Dave Foley).
It’s the most revealing exchange in Pixar’s second feature, because it reflects wider uncertainty at John Lasseter’s studio. Hard to believe nowadays, when a new Pixar classic is an annual tradition, but A Bug’s Life was far from a sure thing.
Yes, Toy Story was an instant classic, but nobody knew if CGI was a flash in the pan or here to stay. Worse, arch-rival DreamWorks’ Antz army beat Lasseter to the multiplex by a month, in a notoriously bitter battle for creative and commercial one-upmanship.
The rest is history. Antz gathered enough stock to kickstart DreamWorks into Shrek and beyond. But A Bug’s Life was a phenomenon, doubling its rival’s worldwide gross and proving that Pixar was the one to beat.
Yet ironically, as the studio has ascended exponentially in boldness and vision (The Incredibles, WALL•E, Up), the film that crowned Pixar as Queen Ant has become rather neglected – something that this belated Blu-ray edition, packed with extras and polished until it’s practically gleaming, seeks to remedy.
On one level, forgetfulness is forgivable: this is Pixar’s simplest effort, a mayfly beside the goliath beetles to come. But the lack of love is surprising, given that this is built to be loved.
Where Antz risked alienating kids with its Woody Allen shtick, Pixar’s sunny disposition excludes nobody. Offering colourful eye-candy for tots and in-jokes galore for adults, its clarity of purpose boils the Pixar template to near-abstract purity.
The studio’s casual audacity is apparent in the storyline, which seamlessly blends two unlikely bedfellows. The obvious model is Seven Samurai, whose tale of warriors hired to protect an underdog village is brilliantly parodied by transforming the ‘samurai’ into hapless circus performers.
Less well-known is the provenance of the insects, borrowed from Disney’s 1934 Silly Symphony Grasshopper And The Ants. Included here, it’s startling how much of Lasseter’s imagery – the single-file ant farming, the falling leaves – was directly lifted from this ancient short.
The film’s identity emerges from rich cross-fertilisation between these sources.
No, it’s neither as profound as the Toy Storys, nor as original as (say) Monsters, Inc., but it strives to define what Pixar actually is. Lasseter subverts Disney’s twee whimsy by turning Walt’s Grasshopper, an indolent bum, into a vicious bandit, whose name and biker-style gang resonate with gleeful Easy Rider references. But the dark wit of that manoeuvre boomerangs back into childlike innocence via the carnivalesque whirl of the circus troupe. Boundaries are being defined to be denied.
It’s no coincidence that this sees the first appearance of Pixar’s now trademark ‘outtakes’, smashing not only the fourth wall but the parallel dimension between animation and reality.
Visually, it’s dated by the cleanness of line and texture, but only because subsequent Pixar movies have alchemised pixels into water, fur, garbage. Judged on the essentials – vibrant colours, virtuoso movement and dizzying shifts in perspective – it’s a marvel, while the decision to shoot in Cinemascope (rare for a CGI film) prompts both humour and audacious western-style vistas.
Appearances, though, are deceptive. This is a story where has-beens are pimped up into superstars, and Lasseter’s casting amounts practically to a manifesto. Not for him Antz’s all-star jamboree, where celebrity personas pigeon-holed character.
Pixar opts for tone and attitude; if an A-lister like Kevin Spacey gets the gig, it’s entirely on merit. Kids In The Hall star Foley is the last person you’d expect to headline such a big project but he’s fine, backed by the cream of US sitcom talent (including Dreyfus, David Hyde Pierce and – inevitably – the mighty John Ratzenberger).
Yet the film is stolen by an accidental actor: Pixar’s late, great story supervisor Joe Ranft, whose temp-track for the gluttonous Heimlich proved way too funny to redub.
Actors and animators enjoy an amazing bio-diversity of insect-themed gags to work with – the number of indignities piled upon Slim the stick insect must set some kind of record.
Broad character outlines (bloodaddict mosquitoes, suicidal moths, genderconflicted ladybugs) are matched at the micro-level of dialogue, enough to make you “rub your legs together” in applause.
The only trick it misses, arguably, is one that Antz nailed, as Bug’s kindergarten colony never captures the antsiness of ants like Woody Allen’s “middle child in one million” did. But surely that’s deliberate. In Pixar’s anthill, independent thinkers like Flik are encouraged to think outside the hive mind.
Considering that Lasseter’s co-director and editor, Andrew Stanton (WALL•E) and Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3), have since become heavyweights in their own right, you have to wonder why Atta ever doubted herself.
Everybody at Pixar can do the job.
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