By any reasonable standard, A Bug’s Life is a great kid’s film. By Pixar standards, it’s a solid effort, and little more. And that’s just fine. The movie delivers where it counts: It’s charming, lively, superbly paced entertainment, loaded with plenty of vibrant personalities (Flik, Atta and Dot notwithstanding), exciting action, and even a few valuable messages for kids to digest. Most obvious is its “believe in yourself” truism, but more noteworthy is its depiction of a society that perpetuates its own oppresion out of fear, and rejects those who dare to question it. The tyrant in charge is Hopper, possibly my favorite Pixar villain, if only because Kevin Spacey brings to him that same maniacal glee that he so menacingly brandished in Swimming with Sharks. The film also has the advantage of featuring the tiniest characters Pixar has worked with yet, which sounds like an odd thing to laud until you take into account how heavily their films play with the scale of the world around the characters in order to generate rousing set pieces.
Originally starting off as a direct-to-DVD effort, Pixar managed to spin Toy Story 2 into a totally worthy successor to their classic feature debut, even if it is repeating basically the exact same themes and narrative beats. That would pose more of a problem if the film wasn’t so surehanded in how it explores them, expanding on Woody’s (and to some extent Buzz’s) character/toy backgrounds in emotionally meaningful ways. Without “Woody’s Roundup” and the drama surrounding it to anchor the film, Toy Story 2 would really just be an amusing, higher stakes adventure story, upping the ante on the house escape from the first film. With it, the film rings with a deeply felt familial longing, helping to instill the ensuing action with surprising dramatic resonance.
Is there a more frightening, wondrous place than the ocean? What a perfectly fitting world to set a story about an overprotective father, and what a perfectly fitting way to introduce the little ones to the vast terrors and marvels of an ecosystem completely divorced from our own. Finding Nemo isn’t perfect — it has a few too many one-note joke characters, and the plot is essentially a highly episodic road movie — but its potent mixture of raw emotion and awe-fueled exploration make for an indelible combination. The film also gives overbearing parents something to think about, demonstrating how restricting your children will only push them further away, in turn exposing them to exactly the sort of dangers they were intent on keeping them from. Kids and adults alike, meanwhile, can benefit from Dory’s “just keep swimming” optimism, having seen how living life in a state of constant anxiety and fear only limits yourself from happiness and interesting new experiences. That might not be the boldest message Pixar has ever endorsed, but it’s championed with such sincerity — and juxtaposed with such heartbreaking tragedy — that it feels completely earned.