Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle A Bug's Life

By Russell Smith

NOVEMBER 30, 1998: 

D: John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton; with the voices of Dave Foley, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Kevin Spacey, David Hyde Pierce, Denis Leary, Phyllis Diller, Madeline Kahn, John Ratzenberger, Bonnie Hunt, Edie McClurg, Alex Rocco, Roddy McDowall. (G, 94 min.)

In 1998's mano-a-mandible clash of digital an(t)imation features, this breakneck-paced, understatedly clever, Disney/Pixar release wins in a split decision over DreamWorks' previously released Antz. Split because, whereas most grownups would agree that Antz boasts a more sophisticated quality of wit, A Bug's Life strikes a better overall balance of adult- and kid-friendly entertainment. As with Antz, the animation is stellar, though not necessarily in terms of startling innovation. (After all, this is an era when you can't make it through an Ace Hardware commercial without being subjected to CGI Weedeaters quivering spasmodically amid tangerine nebulae with the Chemical Brothers doinking maniacally in the background.) No, where Pixar really excels is in creating a seamless, through-the-looking-glass experience in which the 3D feel of computer animation -- its chief aesthetic distinction -- sucks you deeply into a surreal alternate reality. The characters, however, are classic Disney in style and attitude, creating an intriguing effect of old wine in a new bottle that should be accessible even to those who've been slow to warm to computer animation. Like its predecessor, A Bug's Life wastes little of its creative juice in the story department. Its plot is based upon the oft-recycled theme of a sweet-natured dreamer (a young ant named Flik, voiced by Kids in the Hall ex Dave Foley) whose innovative thinking makes him first an outcast, then a hero. When one of Flik's screw-ups gets his ant brethren in trouble with a gang of grasshopper hooligans led by the sinister Hopper (Kevin Spacey), he goes looking for insect mercenaries to fight them. Instead, he goofs again and accidentally hires a motley crew of circus bugs consisting of a preening master-thespian mantis, a glamorous gypsy moth, a cranky ladybug (Denis Leary), a dimwitted beetle, and sundry other dimwitted, craven insectoid troupers. The outcome, of course, is preordained from the earliest scenes, but the story's a ton of fun anyway. From the pure entertainment standpoint, ABL's nonstop action helps it avoid the slack moments that marred Antz. The dialogue, kiddie-accessible though it is, is plenty intelligent for adult enjoyment. And cinephiles can even amuse themselves spotting allusions to movies as diverse as Blade Runner, Microcosmos and The Wild Angels. Further proof of A Bug's Life's sneaky-smart charm is the end credit sequence, a series of fake "outtakes" that wittily remind us we're dealing with a medium in which not only live action but cameras themselves are unnecessary. At the screening I attended, one or two of the tiniest tots were reduced to tears by a noisy closing battle scene, but in general, A Bug's Life is as ideal a piece of family entertainment as you're likely to find. Eight pincers up -- way up.
3.5 stars

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