A Bug’s Life (1998)

“Ants don’t serve grasshoppers! It’s you who need us! We’re a lot stronger than you say we are. And you know it, don’t you?”

Taking a walk down a sidewalk in the spring and or summertime will never be the same after watching the follow up to the first ever Pixar studio film Toy Story by director John Lasseter. Lasseter returns to the computer animated director seat to tell an even more microscopic story about an eco-system that’s hidden in plain sight that most couldn’t concern themselves with in A Bug’s Life. A film that will make anyone hyper aware of where foot placement lands on pavement or in an open grassy field on the lookout for ant hills and other insect-built domiciles. Well, just about anything ants are programmed to do on a cyclical basis will become more fascinating to the broader public eye since they are the stars.

This time – there is no human threat, an ant’s head wont twist in 360 degrees scaring a kid straight for destroying their ant hill. A Bug’s Life, though animated and lighthearted for the entire family to enjoy has deeper messages that only the adult viewer will understand. That’s what made Toy Story so dynamic in its wider appeal to the masses and the same formula is applied here. 

One by one, single file, grain is plucked from a blade of grass by an ant and dropped down below to an ant on the receiving end. All without a hitch until a leaf falls gently to the ground halting the line and forcing upper ant management to get the focus back on the task at hand – collect enough food for the grasshopper gang to eat in lieu of protection from other insects or worse – birds. 

If The Godfather and The Sopranos took place on a groundbreaking computer animated grassy island and was about insects, the food chain, and the eco-system instead of humans, drugs, and grudges. The parallel lines begin to intersect when Hopper (voiced by Kevin Spacy) and his gang swoop in and collect their bounty while forcing an intimidation factor to get what they desire most. Only one problem – this season said payment has been lost due to an over-achieving ant named Flik (voiced by Dan Foley). Part genius inventor, part entrepreneur, Flik means well but his intentions aren’t fully appreciated by the colony. When his invention to collect more grain destroys the platter of food meant for Hopper and other grasshoppers, Flik assigns himself to seek the assistance of bigger, stronger bugs to defend the colony.

In Toy Story we were made to believe that a toy can fly, in A Bug’s Life an entire living breathing habitat can be found if you look in the right place. Ants are country bugs that rarely believe in themselves to survive outside their comfort zone let alone traveling to a big city that’s established as a trash can under a trailer park home. If paying close enough attention, the owner of the trailer is a Pizza Planet employee – a fun easter egg to the previous film sprinkled in. Somehow, Lasseter and team capture the spirit of Manhattan in bug form, even giving Flik the outsiders perspective of a world of possibilities to explore. But this determined ant is on a mission to scout the toughest bugs out there. 

And he finds them – sort of. A group of misfit bugs that are a part of a traveling circus run by P.T. Flea (voiced by John Ratzenberger). Looking to escape a brawl with some flies, the group blindly accepts Flik’s job offer without realizing the promise they made. 

In just 2 films Pixar made it possible to see the world from a different perspective while giving each world a heartbeat that we normally wouldn’t think twice about. Especially on these levels. For the younger audience, the humor with instantly grab their attention while the adult viewer will admire the animation style that in just three years got more advanced and polished as well as the interactions that mirror everyday life in the real world. 

Only a mosquito would order blood type-o at a bar and feel authentic to the imaged world. Or a ladybug named Francis (voiced by Denis Leary) will break gender expectations and go on to be the most underrated character in this story. Or that insects are smarter than we humans think they are – understanding revolution and the power in numbers over those that preach “protection” but use their intimidation to get what they want.  

At just a walking stick bug (voiced by Jonathan Harris) length longer than its predecessor, A Bug’s Life will fly by (no pun intended). Before you know it, the final battle is about to begin – somehow Pixar made bugs interesting even with a heavy comedic undertone to the story. For 90 plus minutes we’re invested – not just the animation drawing us in to this world but the creatures that are brought to life are just as memorable. 

Whether it’s Princess Atta (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus), her young sister Dot (voiced by Hayden Panettiere), or the circus troupe that includes a German accented caterpillar Heimlich (voiced by Joe Ranft), Manny (voiced by Jonathan Harris) a praying mantis magician, his moth wife Gypsy (voiced by Madeline Kahn), a black widow spider Rosie (voiced by Bonnie Hunt), Tuck and Roll (voiced by Michael McShane) two Hungarian pill bugs, and Dim (voiced by Brad Garrett) a rhinoceros beetle. Another stellar talented ensemble cast that hit the comedic and dramatic cues perfectly without fail. But still, with a cast as talented as this one, Flik is missing an appeal that Woody or Buzz Lightyear has. 

Thematically, A Bug’s Life deals with heroism, classism, prejudice, and confidence in one’s ability. Flik is under constant scrutiny for his inventions and mistakes regardless of if what he invents is helpful to the colony. What ant wouldn’t use the grain harvester to speed up the process? One rejection after another is enough to place doubt in the most charismatic character. All Flik needed was some bug to believe in him, to approve of his impulsivity to invent things and be a free thinker.

A Bug’s Life is another win for Pixar coming off a massive success like Toy Story. A tough act to follow and Lasseter captures lighting in a bottle twice with the return of Randy Newman to score the film and bring more gravitas to this microscopic world. With an ensemble cast like this one, Pixar and Disney show no signs of slowing down with the revolutionary gorgeous visuals and animation and a story that the entire family can become consumed with.

Written By: Andrew Stanton, Donald McEnery & Bob Shaw

Story By: John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton & Joe Ranft

Directed By: John Lasseter

Music By: Randy Newman

Cinematography: Sharon Calahan

Starring: Dave Foley, Kevin Spacy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Hayden Panettiere, Denis Leary, David Hyde Pierce, Jonathan Harris, Madeline Kahn, Bonnie Hunt, Michael McShane, John Ratzenberger, Brad Garrett, Phyllis Diller

Where to Watch: Disney Plus

Release Date: November 20, 1998

Running Time: 1 Hour 35 Minutes

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: