'Bug's Life' never opens wings, leaves audience antsy

by Benjamin Mandelker | 11/19/98 6:00am

Life at the ant colony hasn't been too stellar for its residents. Not only must the little bugs defend themselves against the tyrannical rule of the grasshoppers, they must also do major damage control when one of the thoughtful-but-clumsy ants, Flik, seriously jeopardizes the hill. That is the cute premise of "A Bug's Life," Disney's second feature-length offering from the computer-animated genre.

The social dynamics of the ants and the grasshoppers is fairly basic. The ants must serve up a full season's worth of food for the grasshoppers in what is referred to as the "offering." Failure to fulfill this duty results in harsh penalties.

Unfortunately, Flik, voiced by Dave Foley ("NewsRadio"), knocks over the entire gathering, leaving nothing for the grasshoppers. Angry at what they perceive as disrespect, the domineering oppressors, led by Hopper (Kevin Spacey of "The Usual Suspects") demand that the ants gather twice the amount as usual to make up for the insubordination.

This puts the ants in a precarious situation. Normally, the time spent after the offering is devoted to the gathering of food for the colony so that it can survive the "wet season." The ants face both starvation and further punishment.

Thus Flik heads off to find stronger bugs to scare away the grasshoppers when they return for their offering. In a bug "city" which is really only garbage outside a trailer home, Flik comes across a slapdash group of flea circus bugs. The small ant dimwittedly mistakes the circus performers for warriors and recruits them to come back to the anthill. Of course, the bugs aren't that bright either, and they head off to the colony expecting to find an audience for a large-scale gig.

Basically, the film is sort of like an insect version of "The Three Amigos." And, like that film, the under-qualified troupe not so surprisingly manages to come together and ultimately rise to the level of real warriors.

The film does boast many colorful performances by not only Foley and Spacey, but Phyllis Diller, Julia Louise-Dreyfuss, David Hyde-Pierce and Dennis Leary. Unfortunately, Madeleine Kahn and Bonnie Hunt, two enormously gifted comediennes, are somewhat wasted in their lesser roles as a butterfly and black widow.

Notable bug characters include a pudgy caterpillar, a pair of potato bugs and a walking stick clown who would rather do Shakespeare than the circus. In their supporting roles, these characters are given colorful and amusing dialogue, as opposed to Flik, who is the standard nice-but-naive Disney stock character.

The real standout in this film is the animation. While the individual renderings of the bugs, especially the ants, are not always spectacular, the look of the scenery is incredibly impressive. Use of lighting, perspective and subtle motion all create an uncannily real environment for the film. The actual characters pale in comparison to the great detail of the grass or sand or mushrooms in the background.

The exception to this is the depiction of the grasshoppers. Every character is finely detailed and formed in a complex way that greatly contrasts with the ants who seem relatively simplistic in their creation.

Perhaps the most visually exciting sequence occurs towards the end of the film during a stormy climax. Several bugs fly towards the sky against the onslaught of falling rain in a stirring spectacle.

However, for all the strong visuals and amusing characters, the movie doesn't seem to fully take off. The story is rather simplistic and only merely hints at the moral and societal implications of oppression both in the anthill and the flea circus. Instead, "A Bug's Life" seems only to want to deal with the idea that big things can happen with small bodies. That's not to say that such a moral is wrong or bad or too unsophisticated. The problem is that the film limits itself to really only that one predominating theme.

Nevertheless, while the film isn't always sharp or witty, it still is a pleasant diversion. It should have a broad appeal across all age groups, and while I preferred the more sophisticated, mature, complex and even visually stunning "Antz" from DreamWorks, "A Bug's Life" still holds its ground as a cute, sometimes too cute, family comedy.