A Bug’s Life is the little kids’ version of Antz: sweeter, funnier, simpler to follow. I like that the ants in A Bug’s Life are lavender and that they have the blissed-out eyes of Teletubbies, even when they’re running for their lives. The brown ants in Antz are just a shade too realistic for anyone who has experienced a water-bug invasion. I also like that most of A Bug’s Life takes place aboveground (the Metropolis-like anthill in Antz is very depressing) and that the Cinemascope landscape and Randy Newman’s buoyant Americana score remind me of John Ford westerns. The casting in A Bug’s Life is better, too. Antz’s Woody Allen and Sharon Stone are simply too old to speak for young insects in love.
That said, it’s staggering just how similar the premises and plots of both movies are. As Disney’s Armageddon was to DreamWorks/Paramount’s Deep Impact, so Disney’s A Bug’s Life is to DreamWorks’s Antz.
Like Antz, A Bug’s Life has as its hero an individualistic young male who’s struggling to come of age in a rigidly conformist society. The hero, who’s named Flik and given a friendly voice by Dave Foley, falls in love with the princess (and future queen) of the ant colony to which he belongs. He eventually wins her hand (these bugs have humanlike arms and legs) by saving her and the entire anthill from annihilation.
To this end, he must journey afar and win strangers to his side. Flik recruits P.T. Flea’s Insect Circus (its star performers include a caterpillar, a moth, a couple of chiggers, an even-tempered black widow spider, and a macho ladybug) to help save the ants from mean, marauding grasshoppers who’ve been eating them out of house and home. (In the more sophisticated Antz, the danger comes from within: a warrior ant is plotting a military takeover.) The grasshoppers hang out in a dilapidated desert saloon that’s more Sam Peckinpah than John Ford. Kevin Spacey provides the voice of their leader, Hopper, and he sounds as if he’s been lubricating his vocal cords with that icky stuff that oozes out of bugs when they get crushed.
What’s so peculiar about both A Bug’s Life and Antz is that this basic patriarchal myth (young man marries princess after saving society as we know it) is imposed on a matriarchy. You know, the ants, the bees, they’re ruled by queens, not kings. And the queens don’t have consorts, just workers, drones, and warriors to feed them, fertilize them, and defend them. So what both these films are basically saying is that if a bug society could produce one freethinking individual, that individual would inevitably be male, and he’d turn that society into a patriarchy overnight. Or to put it slightly differently: the way to anthropomorphize a colony of ants is to make its most fully conscious and active member a young male.
The Pixar animation in A Bug’s Life is much more fluent than it was in Toy Story, where the only expressive characters were Buzz and Woody. Here, there are about two dozen featured insects with distinct personalities. There are big crowd scenes, intimate close-ups, and lots of bug’s-eye point-of-view shots. Call me gullible: I believed every second of it.