Jun 14, 2016

A Look at Pixar's Most Underrated Film

Scene from A Bug's Life
*NOTE: Originally Published on Readwave

A Bug's Life proved the studio could play with more than toys.

Among the many anniversaries that 2015 marks, it is the 20th anniversary of Toy Story: the full-length feature debut of a completely C.G.I. movie and the start of Pixar. With this weekend's release of Inside Out, it seems like a great time to look back on what they have done. There have been many highs and very few lows. They have a track record unlike any other, turning an otherwise disposable medium into art with cutting edge effects and thought provoking stories.
Yet if one was to rank Pixar's 14 features, there's a certain pattern. While many would put Cars 2 at the bottom, it has an unwelcome partner called A Bug's Life. In majority of cases, Pixar's sophomore film is described with caveats such as "It's good, but not great." Even in iconography, audiences seem less likely to recognize Flik or his merry band of bugs than anyone from the first five films (an unfortunate fate that Brave seems likely to share). It could be that Pixar learned quick how to brand themselves and shot to success with Monster's Inc. and Finding Nemo. It could be that in 1998, major competitor Dreamworks Animation debuted with the similar Antz. Is it just that the film is lacking? I want to actually make the case it is greatly underrated.

There's a chance that if you weren't watching animated movies in 1998 that this escaped you. Even with Toy Story introducing itself as a looming threat to hand drawn animation, Pixar could have been a fluke. Everyone can make one good movie. In the case of their follow-up, they chose to adapt "The Ant and the Grasshopper" into an action-adventure cartoon that most see as The Three Amigos with bugs. Using Dave Foley as the nebbish ant, the story followed an underdog who rose against forces to save his ant colony from oppression (with Kevin Spacey as the villain Hopper) with the help of circus bugs. 
The most common complaints revolve around the film not having the heart or depth of, well, everything else the studio released. The one factor that needs to be mentioned is that the formula wasn't cemented down. Even the acclaimed shorts didn't start appearing until this feature. That doesn't mean that what the film did came out strong. There was quasi-horror in scenes of grasshoppers overtaking the ant colony. Actors like David Hyde Pierce and Richard Kind could provide comedic relief better than most. The whole thing is just an energetic pile of fun as it creatively juxtaposes bug culture into a new and inventive world. 
Another thing that is overlooked is that the film is darker than you'd remember. There are countless lowbrow jokes for sure - a strong demerit for some - but those are sandwiched between some of the studio's earliest attempts at action scenes. The third act features an invasion by grasshoppers of an ant colony that is far more intricate and complicated than Toy Story's famous moving van chase. With multiple plots working together, it plays out beautifully. Scenes in which Hopper meets his conclusion are juxtaposed with Pierce telling great jokes. Even on their second feature, the studio was capable of balancing light with dark. Still, if you think it's all childish jokes, consider that characters are burned, eaten, humiliated, about to be eaten, and so many other scenarios. The film is a lot more complicated than its somewhat dated animation will have you believe.
It could just be that in branding characters, A Bug's Life isn't as attractive as toys, fishes, superheroes, monsters, rats, robots, cars or grumpy old men. I understand that. It would also be criminal to dismiss the other films for what they did very well. Yet as the studio becomes increasingly interested in hidden clues and cross-references, it seems sad to know that we haven't seen A Bug's Life referenced since Toy Story 2 in 2000, alas with a joke about that film's own sequel. It has since been reduced to caveat references about not being nearly as bad as the Cars films. 
But if A Bug's Life has any legacy, it is proving that the studio was willing to take chances and reinvent familiar scenarios. It mixed dark and light in captivating ways. If you haven't seen it, take some time before Inside Out to give it a shot and see if the "simplicity" is really as bad as they say.

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