A Bug’s Life
Why is A Bug’s Life the least favoured of all the Pixar films? It could be down to the concept, which due to it’s Seven Samurai nature perhaps isn’t the most original of their premises. Maybe because Antz came out, and the fact that there were two films about ants made Pixar’s seem less special. But then, Shark Tale did nothing to dampen our love of Finding Nemo.
I believe, if we once again look into the values of the story, it’s because it lacks that touching element, that profound emotional core, which the other films possess. The story centres on Flik’s attempt to save his colony, yet despite his haplessness, there’s no real emotional problem he must overcome in order to achieve that. There’s no relinquishing of a long held dream. There’s no tender moment between two characters. Now you could say that pigeon holes their films into a formula, if their characters must always have some kind of emotional issue they need to resolve. But it’s a principle, a part of the form of story, which can be interpreted and used in a multitude of ways – as their other films show.
Although there isn’t that emotional theme running through the story, the film works nonetheless. What’s the central value at stake in the story? Survival. What is the cause, the route to how the protagonist achieves this? Think back to the opening shot our hero: while other workers simply stand in line, carrying a grain, Flik has invented a device to boost harvesting. He then creates a mini telescope with a leaf and drop of water. In other words, Flik is the embodiment of resourcefulness. Given the chaos he’s created by drowning their food collection, he comes up with an idea to get warrior bugs to save them. Then he comes up with a plan – create a bird to scare off Hopper. Again and again, Flik draws upon greater resources within himself to think of a yet more ingenious plan.
The trouble is that ultimately the plan comes undone. The bird is set on fire, revealed as a fake, and Flik is left to bare the brunt of Hopper in his full menacing self. Saved from Hopper by the Princess, Flik comes up with a last ditch plan, the absolute expression of his character: use the real bird. Hopper arrives, and falls for the trap. In other words, through greater resourcefulness Flik outwits Hopper, and saves the colony. Good triumphs over evil because it has greater powers of resourcefulness. There are many ways you could sum up the film’s controlling idea, you could talk about enslavement, imprisonment, but ultimately Hopper is the embodiment of evil. The ants, the embodiment of the good. And again, this meaning can be taken in a variety of ways, whenever faced with evil, Pixar are saying to us, good will ultimately triumph, perhaps because evil is blinded by its obsessiveness, and becomes too bold, but ultimately because the good are just more resourceful.
And, if you recall my stating that film is an art form, this is also how the wonderful variety of film can enrich our life by offering us many takes upon it. For instance, this meaning is essential for children growing up. But lets say you reach adolescence, and your experiences tell you that this meaning doesn’t quite ring true. You may have studied history, and found that good doesn’t always triumph. Or you may just look around at our world today, for evil will be around as long as humans are. So then, you seek a story to resemble this view you have, something that you can relate to. Something that, in the way only art can, moves you. Moving away from the jovial world of animation, you may stumble upon Seven, a film where the antagonism overpowers the protagonists, to create a ‘down-ending’, an embodiment not of the positive controlling idea, but of the counter-idea that drives the antagonist: evil triumphs because it is endlessly resourceful. After, you may want to watch something a bit more reassuring, so you may go back to A Bug’s Life, or you may watch a film that gives a variation on theme, by telling it in terms of a criminals committing the ultimate robbery that’s based on a thoroughly ingenious plan, for example Die Hard. Watch it, and just note how not only every scene, but every moment of every scene, is so tightly wrapped around the cause of resourcefulness. It is a truly superb film.
To conclude this brief analysis, then, perhaps if A Bug’s Life had worked in some kind of deep rooted emotional problem for Flik to face and overcome, the film would have been more touching, would have been more remembered and loved than it was. As it is, it’s still a thoroughly entertaining story, full of wonderfully realised characters, and some good gags. But it seems, in the high standard Pixar create for themselves, that might not be enough.