Creature Comforts

A Bug's Life
area theaters

T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous
Minnesota Zoo Imation IMAX Theatre, starts Friday

Micro metro: The little guy transcends his infinitesimal existence in A Bug's Life
Micro metro: The little guy transcends his infinitesimal existence in A Bug's Life

What does it mean when the usual promise-filled landscape of the kids' cartoon feature--the deep forest, the endless savanna, the immeasurable ocean--shrinks to an overcrowded anthill in not one but two 1998 movies? I'm betting the fact that 80 percent of Americans now live in metropolitan areas has something to do with it. Add in 1995's Toy Story and the emerging message of children's films seems to be: "Sure, you're going to feel like one passive puppet in a suffocating cast of millions, doomed to a ceaseless cycle of production, consumption, and obsolescence. But chin up, son! You could be the one in a trillion to save your tiny, meaningless world!" It's hardly coincidence that the heroic feats in both Antz and Disney's latest, A Bug's Life, depend on efficiency engineering.

A Bug's Life opens on the belabored scenario of the socially awkward genius who can't get respect. While docile ants carry food to the hill in perfect (hence, uncreative--nature's so quaint) straight lines, Flik (voiced by Dave Foley) tries out a strap-on mechanism that collects seeds faster by chopping down the forest--er, grasses. Unloading, he clumsily knocks asunder the food bribe/sacrifice annually offered to the ants' demon gods, the grasshoppers. Like mobsters denied their protection money, the grasshoppers descend, bashing heads. Chief Hopper (Kevin Spacey, sounding astonishingly macho) threatens the life of all the ants if the offering has not been replaced "after the last leaf falls."

The queen (Phyllis Diller) and her daughter Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) wring their hands, listen to their (male) advisors, and send all the exhausted ants back to work though they haven't a hope of bringing in enough food. Unhampered by unimaginative female hormones, Flik breaks the mold and hits the road, seeking insect mercenaries who will scare the grasshoppers away forever. I can't decide what, ahem, bugged me most here: the bizarre assignment of traditional human gender roles to a species that--as far as I know--values males solely for their, uh, sperm; or the sight of ants walking upright. Given the precedent of Antz, and the Disney back catalog, neither should have startled me.

The greatest surprise of A Bug's Life, though, is how quickly and magically the movie transcends its tedious setup. Flik visits the same insect-city dives that the Woody Allen-voiced worker did in the year's first ant outing, but this cartoon's clean Toy Story lines and delightful wit leave Antz looking cluttered and silly. When Flik falls in with a bedraggled insect circus, mistaking its colorful denizens for warriors, the solo performance goes ensemble. Flik's stock male heroism isn't nearly as insulting when he's sharing the limelight with a sweet black widow, a grouchy-guy ladybug, and--back at the hill--tiny princess Dot (Hayden Panettiere) and her gutsy Scout troupe. With the circus's help, the old queen unveils some tough-broad gumption (hooray Phyllis!), and even Princess Atta develops a carapace.

A Bug's Life enchants the (inner) child as Antz, with its dithering, desperate Woody-isms, never troubled to do. Director John Lasseter and his co-writers Andrew Stanton and Joe Ranft pack the movie full of ingenious physical pranks and kid-level joking (to a firefly: "Hey, turn your butt off!"); with every hearty laugh, the ants' known universe grows larger, until it feels as diverse and boundless as an ocean. There's an infectious "Up from Slavery!" kind of joy to this expansion--and to the exorcism of the bully Hopper, whether he represents poverty, bigotry, or history. Not to get too gushy here: In the end, the ants discover leisure and, per some charming fake-outtake shenanigans, develop an entertainment industry--their next greedy master. Could I expect more from Disney?

The new 3-D action-adventure dinosaur movie from IMAX is, curiously enough, more mythopoetically engaging and less visually exciting than the ants' 2-D tale. A girl's own story, T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous introduces Ally (earnest Liz Stauber), the daughter of a hunky paleontologist (thirtysomething's gamey Peter Horton). Teen Ally really wants to be out on a dig with her hip daddy, unearthing dinosaur eggs and bones; instead, strolling around a museum dino exhibit, she falls into a trippy time-travel hallucination that puts her face-to-face with alive-and-kicking history. Like an initiate on a vision quest, Ally speaks with spirit ancestors (paleontology's esteemed elders) and discovers her animal totem (a tender tyrannosaur, in one of the film's fluid, if not terribly haunting, animated dinosaur sequences). The vision helps Ally accept her inner predator. Or, as the girl helpfully summarizes: "Meeting the mama T-Rex made me feel more confident in myself." Must-see 3-D for the daughters of creationists.

 
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