Cinema: The millennium bugs
Sunday 07 February 1999
Actually, none of these proposals is as outlandish as it seems. If ever a novel cried out to be adapted as a cartoon, it's Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics, which narrates the creation of the universe through the eyes, so to speak, of tiny, wisecracking wisps of inchoate matter. They wouldn't even have to change the title.
Anyway, back to earth - precisely, to the earth over whose surface crawls the hero of A Bug's Life. Flik, a geekish worker ant who normally wouldn't kill a fly, inhabits an island colony, the bane of whose otherwise placid, day-in, day-out existence is a gang of marauding grasshoppers led by the malignant Hopper. (The latter bears a decided facial resemblance to the late, famously pock-marked Eddie Constantine in Godard's Alphaville and might more wittily have been voiced by the character's namesake Dennis instead of the not-all-that-easily-identifiable Kevin Spacey.) Because of Flik's chronic cack-handedness, the miniature cornucopia of grain with which the terrified ants have sought to appease their oppressors - who, one vaguely gathers, are running some kind of protection racket - is tipped into the river before the grasshoppers can gorge on it.
Determined to save not just his face but the increasingly perilous situation threatening the colony, he heads for the local metropolis, a garbage dump of mouldy pretzel cartons and low-fat lard wrappers. There he encounters a flea-bitten flea-circus troupe (even when it focuses on insect life, Hollywood would appear to have only one frame of reference: showbusiness). Mistaking them for a fearless band of insectoid mercenaries, a sort of Minuscule Seven, he enlists their aid against the grasshoppers; and I don't think I'll be spoiling anyone's fun if I report that it all ends happily for the ants.
Aesop, in short. Or, rather, long. The movie runs to 94 minutes and I have to say that, by the halfway mark, my so-called "inner child" was screaming to be taken home. Along the way, there's the occasional amusing conceit (such as the tumbleweedy, Peckinpah-like "Mexico", in reality an old, discarded sombrero, in which the grasshoppers hang out between raids on the ant colony), the occasional cod-surreal objet trouve (fold a leaf into a conic cylinder, plug it at one end with a blob of dew and, hey presto, a telescope) and the occasional funny one-liner ("Rub your legs together for the world's greatest circus!" the ringmaster bellows at his insect audience). But, for anyone over the age of eight, A Bug's Life is a real slog.
Let me add that I thought Toy Story, which was made by the same company, Pixar, a small miracle of charm and invention. But then, I watched that movie with a couple of children and I ended up watching them watching it more than I watched it myself. Even so, this new similarly computer- generated fantasy is a lot less sunny and good-natured than its predecessor - not to mention, for the tinier tots, quite a bit scarier.
What finally is interesting about A Bug's Life is that, because ants are the characters with whom we've been invited to identify, we're also clearly expected to regard their natural enemies, grasshoppers and birds, as the villains of the piece, which is tricky, as in life they surely strike most of us, all else being equal, as somewhat more loveable than their prey. Grasshoppers, for example, I've always felt were sweet, eccentric little insects, though farmers, I suppose, might disagree. As for birds, they tended to be mawkishly sentimentalised in traditional, old-fashioned cartoons, genteelly heralding the dawn of spring with a twittering chorus or else daintily weaving pink ribbons around Cinderella's ball gown. Here, in sharp contrast, they're portrayed as mercilessly pecking predators, and even their chicks are vicious balls of yellow fluff one wouldn't care to meet on a dark night.
Actually, thinking about this weird reversal of roles, I've come to realise why A Bug's Life doesn't work. Animation, or at least Hollywood animation, has always specialised in cuteness. Well, when you come right down to it, ants may be heroically industrious creatures, with a rich and complex social infrastructure, but cute they aren't, and no one can make them so. It may seem a bathetic note on which to end a review, but it's that obvious.
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