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A Bug's Life proves that computer animation can make for a warmly human tale

By Donna Bowman

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  Thus far, only three films that were entirely animated on computer have been theatrically released: Pixar/Disney's Toy Story, which came out in 1996; DreamWorks' Antz, released earlier this year; and Pixar/Disney's A Bug's Life, which opened last week. When reflecting on the emerging business of computer-animated entertainment, it's instructive to consider why the first and last movies in that list are so superior to the one sandwiched in between. There's a good chance it's due to the fact that the same man and the same group of artists--director John Lasseter and his Pixar crew--are behind the good movies, which are not only good, but among the most satisfying comedy-adventure films of recent years.

Comparing animated and live-action movies isn't easy or intuitive, since we tend to keep them in separate mental categories. Animation has a different kind of pull on filmmakers and audiences alike--a sense that here we need not kowtow to reality's rules, that we're in a realm of infinite freedom where the imagination can run free. But this attraction reaches beyond cartoon-makers and touches all cinema; few movies of any budget are made these days without some computer-generated images. Everyone wants to leave life's limitations behind and create ex nihilo.

But the seductive freedom of animation can corrupt. When everything is possible, sometimes it's impossible to do one coherent thing--namely, make a movie. The work of Ralph Bakshi, as well as much Japanese anime, impresses the viewer with hallucinogenic, bold visuals, but seems so intent on breaking technical or social barriers that no story gets told. This stuff dates quickly and bores regularly. On the flip side, however, are the movies that substitute technological sophistication for imagination, relying on their cutting-edge effects to blind the viewer to their mediocrity. Here we find Antz, an ordinary comedy that only fitfully surprised us with bursts of original thought.

Given these twin pitfalls, all the more praise goes to Pixar, which in its award-bedecked short films virtually invented storytelling through computer animation. Its two features transcend the gaudy gadgetry that produced them. A Bug's Life, like Toy Story, exploits the computer's strengths in the service of a classic, beautifully constructed story, with characters and action and, most important, human imagination behind every frame.

The tale of Flick, an outcast ant who saves his colony from marauding grasshoppers, isn't terribly original: It draws on the traditional children's-story moral that those who are different have something unique to contribute, if they believe in their dreams. But the details that make this version of the tale unique begin with the opening scene: a snake-line of food-toting ants getting lost when a leaf falls in their path. The boundless creativity continues all the way through to outtakes over the closing credits. Lasseter, his writers, and his artists took the results of intense observation and brainstorming--what features of bugs' lives would make interesting plot points or gags?--and poured them onto the screen with hilarious results.

Like many animators, the Pixar folks also took inspiration from their voice talent. But unlike most Disney product of recent years, A Bug's Life uses voices that aren't instantly recognizable. While Robin Williams and Demi Moore undoubtedly boosted the box office of Aladdin and The Hunchback of Notre Dame by a few bucks, their name recognition came with an aesthetic price. In Williams' case, his dominating personality never subordinated itself to the Genie role, making the movie as much a Comedy Store routine as a story; in Moore's case, she probably wasn't the best actress for the job. (Sharon Stone, as the love interest in Antz, was cast for her name as well, and she leaves a similar gaping hole in the film where character is supposed to go.)

Since the vocal timbres of the stars in A Bug's Life don't provoke instant recognition, the audience is free to concentrate on the actual roles. Yet adults who watch Newsradio will see Dave Foley's stuttering, boyish enthusiasm reflected in Flick's mannerisms as well as his speech. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss brings her specific brand of dithering feminine charm to Princess Ada, whom Flick seeks to impress by recruiting warriors to subdue the grasshoppers. Kevin Spacey, whose authoritative tones bely his physical size, brings the villainous Hopper to life, and among the "warriors"--actually refugees from a flea circus--David Hyde-Pierce steals the show as a long-suffering stick bug. Ironically, Disney's marketers have produced a series of TV commercials linking voices to names and faces, not realizing that the anonymity is better than any few extra seats that Denis Leary's fans might fill.

Lasseter isn't just a keyboard jockey churning out shiny, state-of-the-art product for the Disney machine. He's a film artist with a sophisticated grasp of cartoon language. I saw A Bug's Life in the company of a computer-graphics professional, who admitted that at first he was disappointed at the smoothness and visual simplicity of the ant characters. But upon witnessing the contrast Lasseter draws between the cartoony round ants, the rough-skinned angular grasshoppers, and the frighteningly realistic bird that threatens them all, he realized that the movie utilized the ants like the iconic images of traditional animation, layering them on top of a more complex environment. Comic artist Scott McCloud's theoretical exposition of the genre, Understanding Comics, posits that the simpler and less realistic the drawing style, the more the viewer will project his own emotions onto the character. Lasseter exploits this truth in a new medium, getting his viewers to identify with the bulging eyes and oval heads of three-dimensional cartoons.

Interestingly, Dreamworks is about to try to same trick with Prince of Egypt, situating familiar cell-animated heroes in a rich, largely computer-drawn world. It remains to be seen if, like Lasseter, these filmmakers know what they're playing with and can use it to make great movies, and not just great spectacle. If Antz is any indication, they've got a ways to go before they make movies that utilize the medium, rather than mucking around in it for novelty's sake.

A Bug's Life and Antz share at least one thing: a huge audience-perception problem. Shortly after seeing A Bug's Life, I raved about it to an acquaintance who was looking for a movie to see. I got only a distasteful shake of the head; Antz had already convinced her that movies about bugs couldn't be more than kiddie stuff. She'd feel silly buying a ticket. So Enemy of the State will get her box-office vote, and I'm left wondering: How many childless adults will miss out on the first-class entertainment of A Bug's Life, thinking it beneath them? A terrific movie is for everyone.

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