No need to beat around the bush: the second Pixar feature film, A Bug’s Life, is a significant step down from the first, the commercial and critical juggernaut that is Toy Story, which also happened to be the first ever 100% CGI feature film. Not the smallest shoes to fill.
Oddly, the media narrative around A Bug’s Life at the time of release, as I remember it and contemporary reviews corroborate, was less about following up one of the greatest achievements in cinema history and more about the rivalry with DreamWorks, who released their own ant-centered CGI film, Antz, specifically to undercut A Bugs Life. Today the comparisons between the two is basically a footnote, mostly because “mid-tier DreamWorks movie where Woody Allen plays a neurotic insect” is not much of an enduring sales pitch, and so Antz has faded.
But even if it’s no Toy Story, A Bugs life is pretty far from a sophomore slump for Pixar. It’s a delightful little movie with a sturdy story that feels more derivative than it actually is; the knuckle-headed misunderstood genius trope was often repeated in the wake of A Bugs Life as one of the default kids movie narrative templates for years and years.
In a loose retelling of “The Ants and the Grasshopper,” A Bugs Life centers on Flik, a member of an ant colony forced to collect food for grasshoppers year in and year out, barely able to feed themselves once the grasshoppers have taken their share.
Flik dreams of finding a better way than spend their lives than toiling to fill someone else’s pockets (or stomachs, as the case may be), and starts dreaming of ways to simplify the food acquisition. But after accidentally ruining a year’s collection, Flik is exiled to a nearby city. This is ostensibly to recruit some tough bugs to fight back against the grasshoppers, but is really to keep him out of the way.
The misunderstandings escalate from there, as Flik recruits a bunch of circus bugs he thinks are warriors but who think they’re being hired for a stage show. Much of this is broad and farcical but in a breezy way that shows great instinct on the balance between story, comedy, and set pieces. Pixar just knew how to tell stories in their early days.
The big plan is to construct a fake bird to scare the grasshoppers away, and here’s where the movie bumps up a grade: Pixar uses its blossoming (yet still nascent) CGI to capture the vast differences in size and shape of the many inhabitants of its world. When a bird appears, it’s an enormous, absolutely terrifying creation. The visuals really make you really feel the experience of being a tiny ant, easy to crush or be washed away and quickly forgotten. Pixar would perfect this concept of storytelling-via-scope with Finding Nemo, but it still works terrifically here.
The climax is exciting and satisfying. As with the source parable, there’s resonant themes of solidarity and sticking it to the oppressive institutions; something that certainly still feels relevant in 2022.
A lot of the CGI looks really dated, of course. But, as with Toy Story, the brilliant visual design within those limitations by Pixar’s artists keeps the film afloat.
The voice cast is solid, with Kevin Spacey as lead villain Hopper in particular elevating the part with menace and brimstone. It’s one of my favorite villain vocal performances in all of animation.
Compared to everything that Pixar would be doing over the subsequent decade, A Bug’s Life looks and feels a bit modest, but it’s still an unequivocal success that holds up.