Spirited Away

Spirited AwayIn spite of my own tendencies, I’ve come to regard films with a cult following with some suspicion. As personal and extraordinary as many of them are, others seem to have gathered fans up in a single-throated horde like the unthinking masses heading to a fundamentalist rally or a Bon Jovi concert. The European horror genre, for instance, which is regarded with great fervor by a significant population of cinephiles, is home to a number of wonderful films, but also some of the grandest, most misogynist and misanthropic howlers ever committed to celluloid. Japanese anime is another one, a niche market of films that are regarded very highly by some very smart people but has largely failed to excite my interest, despite good-faith efforts to see highly lauded examples of the form in the movie theaters where they belong.

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A Bug’s Life


Can we blame yearly weather patterns for the cataclysmic brainstorms that lead competing Hollywood studios to spend megabucks chasing the same ideas at the same time? In 1997 we had dueling volcanos courtesy of Volcano and Dante’s Peak. Earlier this year, we had not one but two end-of-the-world meteor movies, and it’s only Universal’s skittishness in torpedoing Peter Jackson’s pet King Kong project (but Casey Silver lost his job anyway, didn’t he?) that kept us from having two monster movie remakes over the summer (Mighty Joe Young, delayed to Christmastime, would have made three). And even as I write these words, competing Joan of Arc projects (one starring Mira Sorvino, the other Milla Jovovich!) are being rushed to the screen for 1999.

So you have to wonder why, after so many years, it has only now occurred to the suits in Hollywood that what the world needs now is a really good cartoon bug movie. Or, rather, two of them. Granted, one of the films is from Disney, into whose purview such things as cartoon bug movies would generally fall. And the other, the previously released Antz, is from upstart fantasy factory Dreamworks SKG. That Dreamworks made a genuinely good movie out of the concept is to their great credit. That they cast Woody Allen in the lead voice role and made a film precariously geared toward adults as well as kids simply indicated that they have a ways to go before they become as savvy about movie audiences as The Mouse.

Not that I’m stumping for Disney as the be-all and end-all of family entertainment. In fact, I haven’t sampled an animated Disney release since Aladdin, and feel no loss for having skipped them. Not having children in the house, this is my privilege. But what’s different about A Bug’s Life — and its predecessor, the absolutely brilliant Toy Story — is that it’s not a Disney movie, not really. True, it bears that classic Disney imprimatur, and it benefits greatly from the Mouse’s vast worldwide marketing and distribution syndicate. But if you look at the furious rate of invention, the thoroughly contemporary sensibility, and the sheer intoxicated cinephilia of Toy Story and now A Bug’s Life, you can see the spark that’s missing from the lush, safe environment of those Disney song-and-dance sensations.

That’s not to belittle the achievement of the Disney animators, although I admit I’m not a big fan of their contemporary work. But I do mean to celebrate the exuberance of the folks at Pixar animation studios, who have managed to imbue computer-generated imagery with more life than a dozen flat Hollywood live action features. Pixar made a name for itself with a series of progressively more complex computer-animated short films that were, as much as anything, demo reels for the new technology. With Toy Story, released through Disney in 1995, Pixar conceived a hip fable for contemporary kids of all ages. The humor in Toy Story came out of its toy characters, which were cleverly developed from their toy characteristics — Buzz Lightyear is deluded into thinking he’s really a spaceman, Sheriff Woody is as uneasy about the new technology as Kirk Douglas in Lonely Are the Brave, Mr. Potatohead is a discombobulated mess both mentally and physically.

The insectoid ensemble that makes up A Bug’s Life is similarly dysfunctional: an insecure Francis the ladybug (Denis Leary) is in denial of his feminine side; the villain Hopper (Kevin Spacey) is a savvy megalomaniac who belittles the ants that so outnumber the grasshoppers, keeping them down; and little ant Flik (Dave Foley) is a well-meaning goof who suddenly finds himself scrambling to save the entire colony.

The storyline, such as it is, is cribbed from Seven Samurai and then loosened up considerably. In a nutshell, Flik takes a journey into the great unknown world outside of “Ant Island” in hopes of rounding up a posse of mercenary warrior insects to save his ant village from the marauding grasshoppers. In a typical mistaken-identity mix-up, Flik actually recruits a troupe of circus performers, who think they’re being hired to put on a show for the ants.

A Bug’s Life is looser and more chaotic than Toy Story, particularly during its first half, which lopes along merrily in whichever direction the film’s peculiar muse moves it. Don’t get me wrong, the jokes are there — for all the focus it lacks, this is still a very funny movie. The film’s kitchen-sink narrative is matched by its visual style, which eschews the HDTV-ready framing of Toy Story for a broad widescreen image. The Cinemascope aspect ratio adds an epic dimension to the story, which is underlined by Randy Newman’s wittily adventurous score. On the other hand, the frame is jammed so full of details, particularly in a breathless climax that takes place in a pounding rainstorm, that it can be exceedingly hard to take it all in. If I were to see it again, I might sit even farther away from the screen with that in mind.

Critics have remarked on the similarities between A Bug’s Life and Antz, but honestly, I can’t see how the two films could depart much more widely from one another, given that both are computer-generated animations, ostensibly aimed at children, featuring an ant as the protagonist. Yes, storywise, there are perhaps inevitable parallels. But in terms of attitude, while Antz squandered a little too much time on showy exposition and philosophizing, A Bug’s Life seeks out the endless possibilities of its microcosmos, casting grasshoppers, a ladybug, a caterpillar, a walking stick, and a black widow, among others, in prominent roles. And the grasshoppers are depicted so fearsomely, marching toward the “camera” out of the mist, or leering violently in the faces of the cowed ants, that their scenes — along with a breathtaking bird attack — play as a faster, less grueling version of Jurassic Park. What’s more, and probably owing to Pixar’s track record with such stuff, the character animation in this one doesn’t look nearly as studied and labored as in Antz. It just looks natural. Visually, this is one marvelous film.

While I think A Bug’s Life is almost a must-see for its singular imagery alone, I can’t pretend it’s a perfect movie, or even a near-perfect one. It has its slow spots, largely underdeveloped characters (with a bunch of twee ant children traipsing through key scenes to remind us, I guess, that this is a Disney movie after all), and a storyline that’s just a bit too familiar for maximum surprise and delight. The voice performances, unfortunately, are mostly undistinguished, (Spacey’s menacing grasshopper is an exception). In its best scenes, however — and that includes the end credits, so stay seated — it’s both exciting and hysterically funny. Sometimes, that’s all you need.

Directed by John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton
Written by Lasseter, Stanton, Don McEnery, Joe Ranft, and Bob Shaw
Cinematography by Sharon Calahan
Production Design by William Cone
Edited by Lee Unkrich
Music by Randy Newman
Starring Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1
USA, 1998



More than a few single eyebrows have been raised at Antz, the debut animated feature from Dreamworks SKG. For one thing, the movie features the voice talents of neurotic New Yorker Woody Allen, not exactly a big name in children’s entertainment. For another, the language is a little more reckless than you’d expect from a kiddie pic, with Allen’s neurotic insect shtick even alluding to his, ahem, “erotic fantasies.” And finally, the film’s last reel turns on a weird ants-in-peril Holocaust scenario that’s likely to sail over the heads of children who don’t get the reference.

All of those concerns spring, of course, from the unavoidable perception that animated movies are, by definition as well as design, aimed solely at children. Adults who enjoy animated Disney features, for instance, generally take a sort of pride in their appreciation of cartoons, as though it’s some indicator that they still haven’t lost touch with their inner children. At least that’s the perception that holds sway in the U.S. — I suspect that in Japan, where animated feature films are often more cerebral and punishing than their live action equivalents, there would be no such confusion about the intentions of the makers of Antz.

This is the project that was raced through production at computer graphics house Pacific Data Incorporated in order to beat A Bug’s Life — Disney and Pixar’s follow-up to the immensely successful Toy Story — to movie screens. Toy Story is itself kind of a cartoon for adults, with its wry subtext about the commercialization of children’s fantasy adventures running beneath a more earnest story about friendship and self-esteem. The postmodern jokes are there, if you care to get them. And if not, Toy Story is still one beauty of a children’s flick.

Antz is a lot like Toy Story in many respects, although it’s not quite as skillful. The surface story is about a meek worker ant (Allen) named Z — rather, he’s named Z-4195, the anonymity of which is part of his problem: “When you’re the middle child in a family of five million, you don’t get any attention.” There’s no self-determination in the ant colony, where millions of ant larvae are deemed either workers or soldiers and then shoved off for training in whichever profession matches their destiny.

Even the royal family is expected to play by the rules — princesss Bala (Sharon Stone), through no fault of her own, is betrothed to the megalomaniacal General Mandible (Gene Hackman). One night, she sneaks out to a bar with the intention of asking a common worker ant to dance, for kicks. That ant happens to be Z, who impresses her — just barely — with a knack for individuation before they’re separated by a nasty melee. But Z is determined to catch her eye again and hatches a scheme to masquerade as a soldier in order to get close to Bala. Everything goes wrong, and Z finds himself sent to war against a nearby colony of termites. After traversing a number of plot points worthy of a historical romance pic from the 1930s, Z manages to win Bala’s heart, but finds out that Mandible has a sinister plan for subjugating the colony to his own rule.

Along the way, the plot is peppered with jokes about subverting the social order and eye-popping computer animation involving underground vistas swarming with tiny computer generated ants. The animation is impressive; it’s also a little distracting in the way it calls attention to itself. Look at the faces of the antz themselves, which are sleek, fully articulated representations of the corresponding human versions. The problem is that, while PDI can make them do the darnedest things, they don’t have naturalism down. The characters’ movements are exaggerated and artifical, like they were being controlled by puppeteers. Contrast these sleek new models with the subtly expressive faces of old-fashioned animation, and you’ll see there’s clearly a lot of ground to be convered before the computer-generated model is as affecting as the hand-drawn image. (By design, the playthings in Pixar’s Toy Story are supposed to have smooth, mostly featureless mugs, which dovetails well with the qualities of computer animation.) Finally, in the context of a wholly created world, the product placements (for Pepsi and Reebok) are even more disconcerting than usual.

Antz could also stand a little more inventiveness. For the most part, the action scenes are the sort of stuff that mega-budget Hollywood blockbusters would stage if they had the time and money to go the distance. Too many of the visuals here are reminiscent of mind-blowers we’ve already seen in live-action movies, from the outrageous cliffhangers of an Indiana Jones movie to the bug attacks in Starship Troopers and the post-assault sandscape of Saving Private Ryan‘s Omaha Beach. And for Z, the hero’s journey basically consists of being in the right place at the right time.

What really works is the dialogue, which is fast and funny and helps carry the action through the slow spots. (I’d be very surprised to hear that Allen didn’t have a hand in tweaking his trademark one-liners to suit Z, a more agreeable portrayal of the typical Woody character.) In a way, that’s faint praise for animation, a medium that’s arguably at its best if you don’t need dialogue to understand what’s going on. If it’s not entirely successful, Antz is at least unique — in terms of casting, dialogue, and subject matter, it’s the first Hollywood animation in years that isn’t 100 percent calculated to be kid-friendly.

Directed by Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson
Written by Todd Alcott, Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz
Production Design by John Bell
Edited by Stan Webb
Starring Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sylvester Stallone, and Gene Hackman
Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1
USA, 1998