A Bug’s Life is a small-scale film, at least in terms of the size of its characters. In terms of scale, it manages to be as big as any adventure movie, and in terms of atmosphere it is much darker than Toy Story. This is the first film in PIXAR’s catalogue to feature a character death and they do not shy away from making him a character of pure evil.
We follow an ant named Flick as he attempts to help his colony, who are being ruled over by a swarm of grasshoppers led by the despicable Hopper. Along the way, he accidentally hires a group of circus performers, believing them to be heroes who can help in the ants’ time of need. Something that A Bug’s Life achieves particularly well is a sense of dread about the existence of these grasshoppers, which is impressive when you consider that they’re absent for a majority of the film. The first ten minutes of screentime is dedicated to the ants harvesting seeds for them in a state of fear, before heading into their anthill. We follow them, and it’s through their eyes that we experience the grasshoppers’ arrival. There is a brief moment of silence before they crash through the roof of the anthill and descend into the darkness. Once they leave, we don’t see them return until the film’s climax, bar a brief moment when we see them leaving their safe haven. The idea of the grasshoppers is portrayed as scarier than the grasshoppers themselves, which is a wonderful way to go about your villains. That is except for Hopper, who is genuinely scary and brings silence to every scene he enters. At no point are you meant to sympathise with him, because he is clearly a dictator who feels no remorse. That’s probably why nobody feels bad when he gets his comeuppance in the end. It’s still a really dark ending, but it’s followed by a joyful scene of the ants celebrating their freedom. Legendary animator Don Bluth supposedly once said that you can show anything to a child as long as it has a happy ending. After watching A Bug’s Life, I can’t help but agree.
I think what ends up pulling at the heartstrings most is the sense of community on display here. Flick is an outcast, illustrated though his uniquely blue colour and the fact that everybody wants him to leave the colony. When he leaves for his mission, the colony genuinely cheers in celebration but upon his return he is welcomed as a hero. Eventually the ants learn that it’s okay to be unique as long as they have each other. As long as you have belief in yourself and in others, you can overcome anything. This lesson also applies to the circus troupe who have been seen as failures for a long time. Their manager, PT Flea, has a minuscule role, but his entire concept remains hilarious to me. He is modelled on the infamous PT Barnum, whose story was immortalised in 2017 with The Greatest Showman but Barnum’s work doesn’t seem to be general knowledge, at least in the UK, so using his likeness in a children’s film in 1998 is odd. Maybe it’s just me that finds it amusing, but I enjoy the little things.
Finally, it’s worth noting the formation of a small animation company called Dreamworks in 1994. Their first film, Antz, would tell the tale of a strange male ant with who struggles to win a princess’s hand by saving their society. Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of Dreamworks Studios, was a former Disney employee and had “borrowed” the premise for A Bug’s Life for his own company. Antz opened two months before PIXAR could release their film but would take in $192 million less at the box office. As of May 2019, their films have made $15,019 billion worldwide, so I guess crime does pay.
Until Next Time…