A Bug's Life Revisited

(Infinity and Beyond is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of every feature in Pixar’s filmography. In today’s column, he takes a look at the 1998 film A Bug’s Life.)

As the story goes, documented in the David Price book The Pixar Touch (and mentioned in an early teaser for the 2008 sci-fi film WALL-E), a year or so before the release of Toy Story, there was a lunch. A number of the creatives involved in the making of the first fully computer-animated feature — John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Joe Ranft, and Andrew Stanton, among others — got together to figure out what they would do if the best-case scenario occurred. What if Toy Story became a hit? What would they do next?

A number of important ideas — including that of WALL-E, but we have a long way to go before we get to that story — were pitched during that lunch. One that held a certain appeal was a story all about a colony of ants. The lead would be a nerdy type whose unorthodox manner put him at odds with the rest of his colony, even though he would manage to woo and romance the ant princess and eventually live happily ever after. The idea got the green-light and Pixar proceeded as planned.

But the studio, when they released A Bug’s Life in November of 1998, would seem as if they were a month late with this concept. Because to the untrained eye, it sure looked like another computer-animated film, and another animation studio, beat them to the punch. 

Use Our Imaginations

Insects held a clear appeal to Pixar’s brain trust, comprised of men like Lasseter, Stanton, and Ranft. In the mid-1990s, the technology used to animate characters via computer was still nascent. This is a polite way of saying that animating humans via computer still looked kind of off-putting, and the animators at Pixar wanted to find as many ways as they could to work around that challenge for as long as possible. (Though humans would make more and more appearances in future Pixar films, it took nearly a decade for the studio to make a fully human-focused animated film.)

Insects, like toys before them, were easier to handle with computer animation, especially at a time when audiences didn’t crave photorealism from the characters placed within such high-tech filmmaking. Even though the prospects of Toy Story weren’t fully clear in the summer of 1995, Disney CEO Michael Eisner was intrigued enough by the story treatment for Bugs (as it was originally called) to greenlight it as Pixar’s second film. 

A Bug’s Life is a rarity in Pixar’s filmography: though it’s technically original, its writing was inspired by a number of obvious sources. Stanton and Ranft acknowledged that the Aesop fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper was a jumping-off point for the story, in which a meek colony of ants is beset upon by a bullying group of grasshoppers who always stroll into town to steal a large amount of the food the ants have picked for themselves. But the plot that kicks in during A Bug’s Life — inventor ant Flik (voiced by Dave Foley) gets the idea to hire a group of warrior bugs to scare off the grasshoppers, only to realize too late that the warriors he’s chosen are actually a motley troupe of performers with zero skill or interest in bloodthirsty fighting — is a hybrid of Akira Kurosawa’s legendary Seven Samurai and the 80s comedy Three Amigos.

When A Bug’s Life arrived in theaters, people could have been forgiven for not making such parallels. They would instead make a connection to something called Antz.

First Rule of Leadership: Everything Is Your Fault

1998 had two different cases of a pair of big-budget blockbuster releases arriving within weeks of each other. In the summer, there were two asteroid-focused films, Deep Impact and Armageddon. And in the fall, there were two computer-animated films all about ants. But whatever else can be said of the quality of the two asteroid movies, their themes and approaches were very different. Thus, not many people cried foul when Deep Impact came along, or presumed that Armageddon was a lazy retread. (The latter is terrible. But it’s also a tonally separate film from Deep Impact.) 

For Pixar, there was a very clear and disturbing similarity between their bug-themed film and Antz, the first film released by DreamWorks Animation. Lasseter made no bones about it: in an article at Business Week in the late 1990s, he said he felt “betrayed” by the head of DreamWorks, who he believed was attempting to sabotage A Bug’s Life. The personal language may seem cutting or even melodramatic…until, that is, you realize the history laden behind its use.

Lasseter was, of course, referring to Jeffrey Katzenberg. Just as Katzenberg was an integral figure in the Disney Renaissance, he would prove to be an antagonistic figure within the early chapters of the Pixar narrative. Before the studio’s first film was released, he was one of their staunchest advocates within Disney. And when he departed on acrimonious terms in the summer of 1994 — as fate would have it, Lasseter first pitched A Bug’s Life the same day that Katzenberg’s departure was announced — the ex-Disney executive extended a hand to Pixar, inviting them to meet with him whenever they wanted, even as he started a rival studio.

Lasseter took Katzenberg at his word — as alleged in that article, The Pixar Touch, and Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs — and arguably should not have. Katzenberg said he wanted to talk, and just have a friendly chat. When Lasseter took him up on this offer, he launched into his pitch for A Bug’s Life as a way of informing the executive what Pixar and Disney were working on next. Katzenberg had just one question: when was this new film opening?

Katzenberg had left Disney with great displeasure. The tragic and untimely death of Frank Wells, the company’s COO, had led Katzenberg to believe that he would become the new number-two of the burgeoning conglomerate, but Eisner wasn’t on board with the idea. (Nor was he on board with Katzenberg demanding the position or promising to leave, an ultimatum he issued the day after Wells died.) So in the fall of 1994, Katzenberg created a studio of his own with Steven Spielberg and music impresario David Geffen, titled DreamWorks SKG. There would be a live-action arm, but Katzenberg was even more focused on the animation side.

The Twig of ‘93

The original plan for DreamWorks SKG was that its first animated film would be traditionally animated, a retelling of the story of Moses and Rameses entitled The Prince of Egypt. That film did arrive in the holiday season of 1998, but it would be the second DreamWorks animated feature, preceded by the studio’s new pick for first, the computer-animated film Antz. On the surface, the two films are similar: both protagonists are awkward, nebbishy, and outcast by the rest of their colonies, and both protagonists fall in love with the princess. But Antz and A Bug’s Life do have obvious differences. Both films have large ensembles, but only the DreamWorks film could be credibly dubbed an A-List affair, with big names who weren’t often associated with family fare.

And the humor in the two films is largely different. An early setpiece in A Bug’s Life sets its manic tone: we meet the members of P.T. Flea’s circus as they perform a “Flaming Death” routine that nearly kills the circus impresario (voiced by John Ratzenberger, thus kickstarting a trend in which the former Cliff Clavin would appear in every Pixar film). The opening scene of Antz also serves as a statement of purpose for its style of humor: the nerdy lead goes through his litany of neuroses with an unfeeling therapist. The two characters in this opener are voiced, respectively, by Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky (because, as we all know, it’s not a family film without the presence of Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky). 

This would end being an extreme example of what became the DreamWorks Animation ethos: no matter the premise, ensure that a lot of big-name celebrities are present, making references kids won’t get but parents will, and hope it all works out in the end. Would kids, for example, get a kick out of hearing the voices of Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin, Saturday Night Live alums, as bumblebees? No, but their parents, who might have grown up watching the bumblebee characters on the early seasons of SNL, might.

Antz arrived nearly two months before A Bug’s Life, and was a modest start at best for DreamWorks. For his first computer-animated film, Katzenberg had gone to a fellow computer-animation company based in the San Francisco area, Pacific Data Images. PDI, as it’s known, and Pixar weren’t as focused on the bitter rivalry as much as Lasseter was. From a technical standpoint, Pacific Data Images couldn’t hope to match the artistry of A Bug’s Life, though it wasn’t for lack of trying: aside from their own skills, the rumors persisted (despite never being confirmed) that Katzenberg promised financial incentives if PDI could finish Antz months early — it was originally supposed to open in the spring of 1999.

The quality of animation in Antz, either because it was rushed or simply because the technology had only progressed so far as of 1998, has not held up well over time. (Neither have the jokes, nor has the presence of…y’know, Woody Allen in a family film.) A Bug’s Life, though, represented a major step forward in photorealism for Pixar. This time, the concerns of falling into the uncanny valley with human characters — the notion of the “uncanny valley” is that computer technology can design human characters that look so real as to be disturbing and uncomfortable to the viewer — were put to the side. A Bug’s Life takes a Bambi-like approach to humans: discussed, but never actually seen. (Even a gag with a bug zapper only depicts human inventions, not actual humans.)

The Only Stick With Eyeballs

A Bug’s Life would wind up being something of a progenitor to the 2006 film Cars, balancing its forward-thinking technology with a very familiar story. The 1998 film was the first from Pixar presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which is only now becoming more common in feature animation. For decades, that wider aspect ratio was rarer in Disney features — only a select few hand-drawn animated titles, such as Sleeping Beauty, were displayed in the widescreen CinemaScope technology. The wider frame typically demanded more of animators, who would have to fill more space than normal, thus adding cost and time to a production.

A Bug’s Life began that step forward for computer animation. The grand, epic scope of the film, a juxtaposition with the fact that the largest character in the film is a bird, is excellently communicated through the wider frame. A colony of ants was hard to animate, especially considering the vast number of crowd scenes in the film. Per the Price book, there were at least 400 such shots in A Bug’s Life, something that’s gently tweaked during the outtake section playing through the end credits, as one of the ants with a speaking role flirts with what turns out to be a cardboard standee of an ant. Character design aside, A Bug’s Life looks quite incredible. The fact that it took three years between releases makes sense when you watch how far the technology must have come, and how much the animators had to push the tech to accomplish dazzling visual moments, from a giant leaf descending upon a scared group of ants to the bullet-style sound effects of rain falling from the sky to flood the colony. Even simpler moments, like a blissful trip above leafy greens scored to Randy Newman’s soothing music, have a jaw-dropping quality to them.

From a storytelling angle, A Bug’s Life leans harder into a very key aspect of the Pixar creative throughline of their first decade: what if the human world…but with non-human characters? Though this title doesn’t boast any serious buddy-comedy-style interactions — the closest you could get is Flik and his eventual paramour, Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who starts out as one of his fiercest critics — there’s a lot of humor mined from watching how insects would act if they watched the circus, if they went to a bar, if they had community theater, etc. It’s the same kind of humor that crops up in later films featuring monsters, fish, and cars. (The only difference with the latter is that in the Cars films, humans apparently don’t exist, which…well, we’ll get there eventually.)

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