A Bug’s Life may be the single most amazing film I’ve ever seen that I couldn’t fall in love with. The second computer-animated feature from the wizards at Pixar, who made the great, exhilarating Toy Story, it’s a hellzapoppin’ creepy-crawly jamboree — a wryly teeming comedy set in a mad, mad world of backyard bugs, who have been brought to life with a technical ingenuity so extraordinary it may well transcend that of any previous animated film. Zip-zappy and supersmart, crammed with busy, caroming sight gags that escalate with a near-atomic frenzy, A Bug’s Life is like a fireworks show that’s too big and bursting to take in. It’s so obsessed with wowing you, in every corner of every frame, that as a movie it doesn’t quite breathe. John Lasseter, the creative guru of Pixar (and the film’s primary director), is undeniably some sort of whacked genius, but you can feel how hard he’s working to top himself and everyone else. He has made a kiddie flick that’s about nothing so much as its own virtuosity — less an ingratiating entertainment than a crazily spinning gyroscopic feat.
The animation, from its opening frames, is miraculous. We’re near a tree trunk in the glorious sun, where a friendly army of ants is placing seeds atop a giant, rickety pile, all as a ritual offering to a tribe of grasshopper bullies. Everything is gleaming yet tactile, from the swaying grass blades to the insects’ faces and bodies, which cast the subtlest of shadows and reflect slivers of light. The images have an eerie, sculpted vitality that literally seduces your eye into forgetting it’s watching animation.
For a while, you revel in the textures, and in the amiable tale of Flik (voiced by Dave Foley), the renegade-nerd hero, who in his effort to invent a one-man-band grain-transport system accidentally spills the offering into a puddle. When the grasshoppers arrive, led by the Darth Vaderish Hopper (voiced with implacable comic menace by Kevin Spacey), they’re hopping mad, and Flik, eager to save face, volunteers to head off into the wilds, round up some warrior bugs, and bring them back to defend the colony. The best he can offer, though, is a motley troupe of flea-circus performers — a grouchy he-man ladybug (Denis Leary), a velvety black widow (Bonnie Hunt), a snooty stick bug (David Hyde Pierce), and an exuberantly squishy and corpulent German caterpillar (Joe Ranft).
It’s at the circus that the movie goes blissfully haywire, as the gags explode with an intricate slapstick freneticism that walks a thin line between exuberant and exhausting. The staging, while ingenious, is often too fast for words — or pleasure. Toy Story had an inspired script, but the wit in A Bug’s Life is nearly all visual, and though some of the jokes are great (a homeless bug brandishes the sign ”Kid pulled my wings off”), the insects, as splendid and funny as they are to look at, remain strangely one-note characters. The climax, which hinges on the colony’s construction of an elaborate fake bird to scare the grasshoppers, is at once surreal and wobbly; that bird is beautiful, but the story arc lacks thrust. The unhinged inventiveness of A Bug’s Life is, on some level, awesome, and I greatly enjoyed moments of the movie, but it left me, overall, feeling slightly dazed. The film may just signal a new phenomenon: imagination overkill. B