Sunday, 14 October 2012

Film Review | A Bug's Life (1998)

A Bug's Life has possibly the most unenviable position in Pixar's cinematic canon, sitting chronologically as it does between the release of Toy Story and Toy Story 2, films quite rightly hailed as two of the studios very best. It was also in cinemas at the same time as rival studio DreamWorks' first ever animated release, Antz, a film with  several similarities in character and concept to Pixar's second feature. It was therefore a film that needed to work incredibly hard to make itself stand out.

A Bug's Life follows Flik (Dave Foley), an ant who lives in a colony terrorized by a swarm of grasshoppers led by the nefarious Hopper (Kevin Spacey). Flik also has a tendency to leave destruction in his wake, especially when he attempts to help his fellow ants. After Flik causes the entire harvest gathered for the grasshoppers to be destroyed, he volunteers to travel to the city in order to find someone who will help rid them of the grasshoppers for good.

Now nearly fourteen years old, revisiting A Bug's Life could have been an experience of seeing how much animation has advanced since Pixar first started making feature length films, but thankfully this isn't the case. Watching the film on Blu-ray only served to enhance how vibrant and colourful the studios animation still appears. There are one or two elements which may show the film's relative age in the medium - the bird comes to mind first, as well as a couple of other larger elements (well, from an ant's perspective anyway) - but never to the extent of taking anything away from it.

That said, when compared to Toy Story (something that A Bug's Life will have to put up with permanently), the film at times comes across as less adventurous and a little more safe in its design. Andy's bedroom is characterised by the variety and difference between all of his toys, with each feeling like a distinct personality and beautifully realised in its own way. Ants are, by definition, pretty similar looking. There may be subtle differences between Flik and his fellow ants, but never enough to distinguish one ant from the next. The background characters in Toy Story featured a wealth of individuals who may only have had a minute or two of screen time but were brought to life as their own toy; here we have an army of blue ants who for all intents and purposes look exactly the same, facing off against grasshoppers who by and large look the same as each other. It just doesn't have the same impact.

The same can be said for the story. Finding its roots in the fable "The Ant And The Grasshopper" by Aesop, the film owes just as much to Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. But whilst the plot is engaging and fun with clear cinematic heritage, this is much more firmly grounded in the family and children's entertainment bracket than the Toy Story franchise and other later Pixar efforts. The hidden humour and in-jokes for the grown-ups are much scarcer, mainly provided through the grasshopper characters, and feel much less subtle than what many have come to expect from the studio by now.

Ultimately, A Bug's Life is a victim of Pixar's success both before, in the form of Toy Story, and since. It's a fun, well made, enjoyable film. But when it comes from a studio as innovative and consistently outstanding in terms of output as Pixar, it's a film that is likely to get overshadowed. In some ways that's a shame, as A Bug's Life is a genuinely very good film; in others, it's right that the studio's relatively superior efforts get the recognition.


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