A misfit ant travels to the bug city to find warrior bugs, but mistakenly hires a failing circus crew instead.
Great films can be seen multiple times and each time you’ll glean something new from them. When this film first came out it would’ve wound up with a 4/5 star rating from me (actually I’d probably have given this a perfect score since I was eight), but in today’s world, in today’s tense political climate, this has become a better, more relevant film than it was twenty years ago.
The proverbial ‘little guy’ is getting stomped on still. Look at the protests in Hong Kong over the Chinese extradition law that are going on right now. Look at the rise in police brutality. Look at the #MeToo movement against Hollywood moguls (ironically, the practically banished Kevin Spacey voices the bad guy). Look at the human rights violations North Korea. Look at the rise in racism and white nationalism and hate-filled rhetoric against refugees and people in our own country. The world we’re in today feels slightly similar to the one Flik (Dave Foley, “South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut”), Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, forthcoming “Onward”), and the other ants of our story live in; it’s a troubled world with little hope (but that hope still is there). While we might not literally have a totalitarian dictator whom swoops in to steal our food once a year, there are forces of oppression that come from those in power, and this film teaches us from a very young age that we should question that oppression.
In the words of Terry Pratchett: “Authority that cannot be questioned is tyranny, and I will not stand for tyranny.”
“Stand back, ye flies! We are the greatest warriors in all Bugdom!”
A colony of ants lives on Ant Island, where every year they work hard to provide enough food for themselves as well as their evil overlords, the grasshoppers. The grasshoppers are lead by the particularly malicious Hopper (Kevin Spacey, “LA Confidential”). An ant named Flik decides to stand up to the oppressors by traveling to the city to find bugs that will help them fight back. He meets a troupe of out of work circus performers whom he mistakes for warriors, and, after they return to Ant Island they devise a plan so that Flik doesn’t have to come clean about his mistakes, but in doing so, they put the entire colony at risk.
Other than the themes, I think one of my favorite parts about this film is the amount of humor the writers aimed at adults. This film is crammed pack with jokes that are not only hilarious, but they’re actually intelligent, especially when comparing this film to the mainstream kids stuff in the 90s. As much as I loved Spongebob when I was a kid, his comedic material came from ripping pants and making funny noises with his mouth. This movie finds its humor in puns, gender biases, and in satirical looks at personalities. I was practically crying laughing during the opening circus act when Francis the Ladybug (brilliantly voiced by Denis Leary, “The Amazing Spider-Man”) is confused for a girl, but there are dozens of other moments where I let out belly laughs in this film. I love the moment when the ants celebrate the circus bugs’ arrival by showing them a bloody mural of the battle to come; the moment when one of the little ants cheerfully states: “We drew one of you dying because our teacher said it would be more dramatic!” is hysterical. There’s a great balance of one-liners for adults (“I’m the only stick with eyeballs!”) and physical humor for kids (PT. Flea (John Ratzenburger, “Monsters Inc.”) getting set on fire).
World building is something that I think Pixar constantly excels at. I mean, look at “Wall-e”- that entire film is based around two almost wordless characters, but the worlds that they create around these characters comes alive with vibrant energy and depth. The characters don’t even need to speak and we understand things about how the world was changed for the worse, we get the idea that humans have traveled from Earth for so long that they’ve forgotten the very concept of home. It develops two worlds, a post apocalyptic one and a utopian one; and it shows us that the world we left behind is actually worth fighting for. I’d put “A Bug’s Life” on par with “Wall-e”, “Toy Story”, “Up”, and “Finding Nemo” in terms of world building; it’s simply a masterful world brought to life in such vivid detail it’s almost impossible to look away.
The world here feels like one from a fantasy novel; even our ordinary world is extraordinary. Ant Island is a lushly designed place with set rules and order, and within minutes we’ve established the order of things. I love the way the ants work together to harvest grain; I love the way they handle small problems that we as humans would never think about (what do you do when a leaf falls in your path and you can’t find the line?). But expanding from Ant Island out into the rest of the world is where this movie really flexes its worldbuilding muscles. The Bug City that Flik goes to feels nasty and gross, like New York City in “Midnight Cowboy” or even “Basket Case”. Even the characters that populate this town feel like they’re all at the end of their ropes (“Kids pulled my wings off” say the sign held by a homeless cricket sitting on a discarded bit of cardboard). The juxtaposition- the grossness of the town when compared to Ant Island- makes the Island seem like it’s worth fighting for even more.
In the end, it’s the story that brings me back to this film. If you think about it, this is kind of like “Seven Samurai” for kids with a few twists (village is being attacked by oppressive warlord; villagers hire ‘warriors’ to defend them; villagers rise to fight oppressive warlords). It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s close enough for me. There are moments in this film that feel more epic than they have any right to be, and here I have to throw up a spoiler tag because I want to talk about the ending.
After Flik’s plan goes to ash, and Hopper seems to have won, Flik lies beaten in the dirt, about to be squished.
Hopper screams to the horde of Ants: “Let this be a lesson to all you ants: ideas are very dangerous things. You are mindless, soil-shopping losers put on this Earth to serve us.”
A weak voice comes from off screen, Flik: “You’re wrong Hopper.”
Cut to Flik, struggling to his feet. Flik: “Ants are not meant to serve Grasshoppers. I’ve seen these ants do great things, and year after year they somehow manage to pick food for themselves and YOU. So who’s the weaker species? 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?”
A few more things transpire between Hopper, Atta and Flik, but the tide has turned in this moment. The Ants realize they are the ones that have the power, and that moment is as earned as it is powerful. It gets me so pumped up for the battle to come, and that battle does not disappoint; it feels just as epic as the Hun charge in “Mulan” or the battle at the end of “How to Train Your Dragon”.
I expected to enjoy revisiting this film, but I had not expected to love it as much as I did. I honestly think this film is more important today than it was when it hit theaters twenty years ago. “A Bug’s Life” not only holds up after twenty years, I would put it in Pixar’s top ten films (they’ve released twenty films as of the day I’m writing this).
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