A Bug’s Life is easily the most underrated Pixar movie ever made. Despite being only the second computer animated feature made by the studio. A Bug’s Life asks the question, what does the world look like from an insects perspective? After successfully exploring toys with Toy Story, Pixar chose to literally follow a bug’s life with A Bug’s Life. Most of the production staff remained the same with John Lasseter continuing to direct and Randy Newman continuing to score. Unlike most of Pixar’s work, A Bug’s Life is a lot closer to most Disney productions. It’s loosely inspired by the aesop fable The Ant and the Grasshopper, features a princess, and has a large cast of characters.
A Bug’s Life was another of my most beloved animated movies growing up. At 3 years old, it was the first Pixar movie I saw in theaters and many times on VHS. I even had A Bug’s Life pajamas. Although it was another well received success, there’s no ignoring the obvious controversy surrounding it. A Bug’s Life was released in 1998 along with another ant movie about a misfit in love with a princess who fights for his colony. It’s a complicated story, but basically disgruntled Disney chairmen Jeffrey Katzenberg might have stolen the idea. Regardless, A Bug’s Life is different enough to stand on its own…
A Bug’s Life is the first Pixar movie to begin the tradition of having a short film before the movie. Geri’s Game is a fun little story about an old man playing chess by himself. Whereas, A Bug’s Life had the difficult task of taking creepy insects and giving them emotions. Toys were easy, but bugs needed a more approachable kid friendly redesign. My brother and I were obsessed with ants and other bugs at a young age. So it was fun to see regardless of their reputation. All ants have unnatural blue & purple exoskeletons with anthropomorphic bodies, no mandibles, four legs, and only females possess wings. Disney prides themselves on accuracy, but liberties like these were necessary. Instead Pixar put most of their effort into the bug’s eye view of the ant’s island colony.
No humans are featured, so the computer animation is thoroughly impressive years later. The simple design of the insects meant the use of more characters than you’d expect from an early Pixar production. Hundreds of ants are rendered since all they need is a face change. A Bug’s Life centers on a colony of literal drones who are unable to think for themselves. Allowing them to be oppressed by a small gang of grasshoppers. It’s a deep message that likely went over many kids heads. Grasshoppers also look more cartoony, but they maintain a threatening appearance. A large multi-generational cast of mostly TV stars helps make A Bug’s Life another respectable cast for Pixar. Comedian Dave Foley is the eccentric accident prone inventor Flick. An ant whose individualist ideas make him the black sheep of the colony. Despite his bug sized inventions being cool.
After Seinfeld ended, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ first role was as Princess Atta. The sadly forgotten nervous wreck Pixar princess in training to become queen. Phyllis Diller is the lighthearted Queen and a very young Hayden Panettiere is the kid Princess Dot. She’s the only one who believes in Flick, but his latest screw up gets the entire colony in trouble. Hopper will always be my personal favorite Pixar villain. Kevin Spacey brings the right domineering tone to the oppressive grasshopper who rules by exploiting the ants fear. Which he cleverly compares to a tiny grain that only becomes a problem if it grows. Hopper is funny enough on his own, but his loud mouthed brother Molt plays off him well. Rather than stay and recollect food, Flick hatches an idea to find warrior bugs to defend the colony. Which the colony gladly accepts. Flick flies away on a dandelion and ends up in a tiny city under a trailer (next to a Pizza Planet truck).
Most of the humorous bug puns mixed with sneaky adult humor can be found in the bug city. The circus bugs are a hilariously diverse troop of insects & arachnids of all shapes & sizes. There’s self conscious stick bug Slim, hot headed male ladybug Francis, praying mantis magician Manny, his lovely moth wife Gypsy, gentle giant rhinoceros beetle Dim, kind hearted black widow spider Rosie, bickering pillbugs Tuck & Roll, and my personal favorite hungry caterpillar Heimlich. All with the retroactively impressive voice talents of David Hyde Pierce, Denis Leary, Jonathan Harris, Madeline Kahn, Brad Garrett, Bonnie Hunt, Mike McShane, and late animator Joe Ranft. John Ratzenberger continues his voicing tradition by playing money hungry circus owner P.T. Flea. When an accidental performance gets them fired, Flick discovers the troop fighting off flies.
Leading to a comical misunderstanding where the circus bugs must pretend they’re warrior bugs. Something they only agree to after rescuing Dot from a bird. Which is very threatening from a bug’s perspective. So Flick thinks outside the box by building a bird out of sticks & leaves with the help of the entire colony and circus bugs. Which also sparks an adorable romance between Flick and Atta. Unfortunately the lie is revealed when P.T. returns and Flick’s exile is the closest thing to a tear worthy moment. Dot learns to fly and sets out to find Flick when the grasshoppers take over. With the circus bugs as a distraction, the bird plan works at first, but a fire ruins everything. You can’t beat the powerful moment when Flick at last stands up to Hopper and inspires the entire colony to realize they can fight back. The only snag is the rain that’s a lot more devastating from a bug’s perspective.
A chase ensues where Hopper attempts to squash Flick before his friends come to his rescue. Hopper’s defeat is pretty gruesome as he’s pecked by a bird and fed to her trio of hungry chicks. In the end, the circus bugs regain their purpose, Atta is made queen, and Flick discovers his place by her side. Another fun Pixar tradition that I wish they’d bring back is the mock blooper reel. Which is hilarious, self-referential, and even features Woody from Toy Story. Newman’s music became a staple of the studio, although his only song contribution is the dreamer song “The Time of Your Life.” A Bug’s Life has all the wit, heart, and edge that makes the rest of Pixar so brilliant. It may have been labeled the “kid friendly” ant movie, but it’s societal themes are complex enough to appeal to adults. A Bug’s Life is like a seed, in that it only gets better the more it has time to grow.