"Psycho" changed how we bathed. "Jaws" made us think twice about how we spent our summer vacations. After seeing "A Bug's Life," you'll never look at a clump of grass in quite the same way again. And that bug zapper? Ten to one it will be in your driveway with a tag attached during your next garage sale.
"A Bug's Life" is the second teaming of Disney and Pixar, the computer animation studio. Their first collaboration produced the critically acclaimed and commercially successful "Toy Story."
This also is the second bug film to be released this season. "Antz," featuring the voices of Woody Allen and Sharon Stone, has been doing respectable box office numbers for the past few weeks. That film is geared more toward an adult audience; this one is being marketed and merchandised straight for the kids -- though parents will enjoy it as well.
The story line is simple. Each season, the ants collect food for the grasshoppers: "They come, they eat, they leave." Only this time, after an exhausting harvest, our hero Flik accidentally knocks the collected seeds and berries into the water. (It looks like a lake, but hey, these are ants; it could have been a drop of dew.) The grasshoppers, needless to say, are a bit ticked off.
The villain is named Hopper, as in Grass not Dennis, but equally surly. Kevin Spacey, who provides the voice, has not been this frightening since he played Mel Profitt on TV's "Wiseguy."
The ants are given their sentence: They must collect twice as much food for their enemies before the last leaf falls, leaving them no time to collect food for themselves. Flik decides they need protection: He'll venture off the island to get bigger bugs to fight the grasshoppers. The leaders of the colony are relieved he'll be out of their antennae, and let him go.
In a scene reminiscent of Gene Kelly, Flik finds his way to the big city and soon comes across a pathetic flea circus with a motley assortment of insects whom he mistakes for warriors. He brings them home with him and, as they say in show business, chaos ensues.
Once the circus troupe enters the picture, the
dialogue is a hoot, bringing new life to such old chestnuts as "Shoo fly, don't bother me" and "From way up here you all look like ants." The leader of the circus troupe is an experienced thespian: "Last year, he played the lead in 'Picnic.' " And the circus acts are introduced with the directive "rub your legs together for . . . " My favorite gag? A down-on-his-luck bug with a tin cup and a sign next to him saying, "Kid pulled my wings off."
Since "Toy Story" appealed to young boys, its charms were largely lost on girls, who were relegated to Barbie characters in its male-oriented plot. Disney has wisely attempted to market "A Bug's Life" to a broader audience by spotlighting Princess Atta's little sister, Dot. Atta herself is no great heroine, but her sister is cute as a bug and plays a key role in the plot with the help of her Blueberry troop (Bug Brownies).
There are a few scary interludes in "A Bug's Life." Hopper's entrance is quite frightening, but because it's featured in the commercial, it probably won't take young viewers by surprise. There's also a scene in which the Blueberries are endangered by fire.
Similarities to "Toy Story" are unmistakable -- some of the same voices, and just in case you fail to make the connection, we have the requisite Randy Newman song at the end. (In the outtakes: As Flik prepares to fly off a giant dandelion, he yells: "To infinity and beyond! Sorry, couldn't resist.")
With respect to "Toy Story," Disney's motto seems to be: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it; but if you can do it cheaper, fabulous!" Apparently someone in the accounting office realized that sitcom supporting actors are a lot less expensive than big box office draws like Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. After all, they aren't seen anyway.
One suggestion regarding voices: Why don't animated features roll the actors' names on the screen in the opening credits? Trying to guess whom the voices belong to is really distracting and also generates a lot of audience conversation.
"News Radio's" Dave Foley is sweetly sincere as Flik, and Richard Kind (as the caterpillar) and David Hyde-Pierce (as the walking stick) are positively delightful. Phyllis Diller has been a cartoon character all her life, and congratulations to Disney for finally making it happen. And there's something natural about Roddy McDowall, who started as a child actor, being featured in his last role here. As the press kit notes, he holds the distinction of working with both Flik and Flicka. The sole disappointment voice-wise is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose Princess Atta is surprisingly flat.
The often shallow characterizations are offset by amazing visual effects, including an autumn rainstorm, underground ant hill and three-dimensional plant life.
But there are a few things that keep "A Bug's Life" from being in the same league as "Toy Story." First and foremost -- thousands of ants that look exactly alike are not the most arresting thing ever to be captured on film. And I was a bit "bugged" by the color of the ants -- namby-pamby pastels that will look terrific on the shelves at Toys "R" Us and in Happy Meals, but often give the film a washed-out look. Fortunately, all of the other bugs look realistic, and some, like the gypsy moth, are visually extraordinary.
The message in the film is that greatness is achieved by thinking out of the box and taking risks. It should have taken its own advice to heart -- "A Bug's Life" is a good movie that could have been great.
One important warning. Don't leave before the credits are done rolling, as the film closes with a hilarious set of outtakes.
A Bug's Life
RATING: *** 1/2 stars