clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Celebrating ‘A Bug’s Life,’ Pixar’s Hidden Classic

It may not have had the commercial success of ‘Finding Nemo,’ or the franchise potential of ‘Toy Story,’ but ‘A Bug’s Life’ still deserves respect for its story and the place it occupies in Pixar history

Disney/Ringer illustration

Ahead of the release of Lightyear, The Ringer is hosting Pixar Week—a celebration of the toys, rats, clown fish, and more that helped define one of the greatest studios of the 21st century. At the heart of the occasion is the Best Pixar Character Bracket, a cutthroat tournament to determine the most iconic figure of them all. Check back throughout the week to vote for your favorite characters and read a selection of stories that spotlight some of Pixar’s finest moments. To infinity … and beyond!

A misunderstood stranger protecting helpless innocents from a villainous, lawless aggressor is the hallmark of so many great Hollywood films: Shane. Seven Samurai. A Bug’s Life. Yes, indeed, A Bug’s Life: that long-forgotten relic of the early days of Pixar.

The studio that brought computer animation to the mainstream spent 15 years on an all-time heater. In 1995, Toy Story redefined the genre, picked up an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay, and launched one of the most successful and widely acclaimed film series ever. Then came Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Up—almost everything Pixar touched carried totemic cultural impact. Even the Cars movies sold a lot of toys.

But A Bug’s Life, released in 1998, generated the lowest box office gross of any film in Pixar’s first 20 years of existence. It inspired no sequels and predated the Best Animated Feature Oscar, robbing us of a showdown for the ages with The Prince of Egypt. Speaking of which, the most enduring cultural legacy of A Bug’s Life might be the thermonuclear feud between Disney and DreamWorks that accompanied the film’s release.

When former Disney bigwig Jeffrey Katzenberg left the company to co-found DreamWorks in 1994, he announced that one of the studio’s first films would be about an ant who doesn’t fit in with his colony—a project that ultimately became Antz. A Bug’s Life director John Lasseter claimed Katzenberg stole the idea from Disney, and he and Pixar founder Steve Jobs very publicly lost their fucking minds. Throughout 1998, Jobs, Lasseter, and Katzenberg hurled barbs at each other in the press and maneuvered the release dates of Antz, A Bug’s Life, and The Prince of Egypt around the calendar like battleships on the high seas, hoping to combine commercial advantage with maximum pettiness.

Antz ultimately beat A Bug’s Life to theaters in the fall of 1998, with The Prince of Egypt (and its all-time banger soundtrack) following in December. Now more than two decades later, people still ask whether A Bug’s Life is the one with brown ants and Woody Allen, or the one with blue ants and Dave Foley.

But that history puts this insect-based children’s western in a unique position in the Disney-Pixar canon: the position to re-emerge as a cult classic.

As much as A Bug’s Life was overshadowed by the movies released afterward, it offered proof of concept for the Pixar model post-Toy Story. After all, it’s not the breakthrough hit that makes a one-hit wonder, it’s the follow-up.

Art made for children, more than any other audience, tends to have a message. And A Bug’s Life is as didactic of a film as you’ll find. Flik, the ant hero, is constantly inventing new contraptions to make life easier for his colony, which lives under threat from a swarm of grasshoppers who demand a share of the food the ants harvest each season. Some of his inventions—most of them, we’re led to believe—don’t work, so when one causes an accident that leads to the loss of a harvest, the colony reaches the end of its patience. So Flik sets out to make amends by finding mercenaries to fight the grasshoppers, ultimately mistaking a circus troupe for the warrior bugs he seeks.

As much as Flik is an argument for free thinking and individuality, everything he does is with the welfare of his community in mind. The colony, led by Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), is unified from the start—something the grasshoppers’ villainous leader Hopper (Kevin Spacey) knows is their greatest strength. And even though it’s a children’s film, A Bug’s Life understands that the conflict between individuality and community is one of life’s greatest dilemmas, and synthesizes a harmony between the two ideas: the community is strongest when individuals use their diverse gifts to pursue the common good.

That’s a worthy message. But you need more than just a message to make a good film. So A Bug’s Life drew inspiration from classic movie conventions to knit together a compelling narrative. Most obviously, it’s a western, pitting a group of peaceful farmers against a ruthless and violent gang of racketeers, set to a soaring score that recalls Aaron Copland.

It’s also a comedy of manners, as Flik’s recruitment of the circus bugs leads to a farcical series of misunderstandings, followed by an equally farcical series of contrivances as he and his coconspirators try to maintain their deception. Francis (Denis Leary) is a chronically insecure male ladybug who softens up and becomes de facto den mother to the colony’s Blueberry Scouts. Tuck and Roll, twin pillbug acrobats, are two of the studio’s funniest creations to this day. And the rest of the circus bugs—voiced by stars of the time, including Rosie the black widow spider (Bonnie Hunt), Slim the walking stick (David Hyde Pierce), and Gypsy the moth (Madeline Kahn)—all find a sense of purpose among the ants after an unforgiving and unsuccessful life in showbiz. It’s the kind of production whose sly wordplay keeps parents laughing long enough to play the movie on repeat. This mostly takes the shape of a torrent of insect-related puns, like the mosquito who walks into a bar and orders a “Bloody Mary, O-positive.”

The animation of A Bug’s Life looks outdated today, and even at the time it wasn’t groundbreaking or visually arresting the way Wall-E’s or even Brave’s was. But with the benefit of hindsight, there’s a refreshing simplicity to it—a stark textural difference between the smooth, almost squishy ants and the creepy, paper-like grasshoppers. It’s a contrast that only makes Hopper and his rabid henchman Thumper even more menacing.

Small choices in animation and sound design seamlessly reorient the viewer’s sense of scale—liquid forms into visible droplets, and minute cracks in a dry lake bed look foreboding and austere. The beating of insect wings sound not like a buzz, but like the thrumming of a motorcycle engine or helicopter blades. Everything is purposeful.

These are familiar qualities of Pixar films almost 25 years later. But as much as Toy Story established the tropes and techniques that made the studio’s movies successful, A Bug’s Life codified them as conventions: the post-credits outtake reel, the Randy Newman soundtrack, the obligatory John Ratzenberger cameo. Everything that’s old hat now had to start somewhere.

While A Bug’s Life might not have the cultural longevity of the films that followed, it kept the train rolling as Pixar fended off DreamWorks’ challenge; without it, Pixar might have only been the studio that started the computer animation revolution, rather than the studio that embodied it.