Coming off the success of Toy Story, John Lasseter and Pixar shifted its anthropomorphic gaze on a reproduction of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Well, that might not actually be the source material but the overall arcs are similar. The film centers on an ant colony plagued by a bandit of grasshoppers who visit the colony every year demanding food as tribute. After one eccentric ant manages to accidentally destroy the year’s tribute, the bandits demand an unobtainable tribute which would leave the ants with no food to make it through the year. As punishment for ruining the tribute, the ants send the well-meaning but clumsy Flik out of the colony on a wild-goose chase to find “warrior bugs” to protect the colony. No one expects Flik to succeed and given the track record of his schemes, we might not blame them.
The film deals heavily with characters seeking appreciation and, at times, admiration from others. Flik may not be Woody but he follows a similar path of redemption. Woody starts Toy Story with the admiration of the rest of the toys but loses it after jealousy overtakes him. Flik is an outsider from the beginning of A Bug’s Life and it’s implied he has caused problems for the colony for some time longer. Only the young Princess Dot supports Flik and his odd contraptions. Like Flik, the Princess feels unappreciated and ignored, complaining she is “too little.” Flik tries to cheer her up but confuses her with a rock analogy which returns as a recurring joke throughout the movie. Even the “Samurai” of the film try, and usually fail, to win the admiration they crave. In a familiar gag fueled by misunderstanding, Flik accidentally recruits a group of circus insects to protect the colony.
The circus bugs believe they have agreed to perform as entertainment for the colony and are similarly surprised to find out the reality of their arrangement, only finding out for sure when some ant children show them a mural they made of their dramatic, and bloody victory over the grasshoppers in combat. One of the children adds “We drew one of you dying because our teacher said it would be more dramatic.” (Side note: That’s insane. Those little children, who are repeatedly called “cute” and “adorable” draw one of the film’s protagonists cut in half, another warrior spearing a grasshopper through the chest, and a third devouring other enemies while standing in a pool of blood. That’s some messed up stuff and even the kids recognize it. They can’t even look at the warrior bugs in the scene. Sure that could be because they are shy little kids, but I think they look away because they know they made a nightmare inducing Murder Mural).
Ultimately, the film concludes with the promised confrontation between the colony and the grasshopper bandits. The finale steals some of its own narative thunder after spoiling what would be a worthwhile ending featuring the ants rising up together to fight the grasshoppers. Instead it opts for a more grisly and coincidental climax which features an uncomfortably direct death, similar to an execution featured in Toy Story.
No matter how perfect an ending the writers could have concocted, the story of A Bug’s Life could never have matched the intrigue surrounding the production and release of the film. In a feud featuring some unlikely names (including Steven Spielberg and Steve Jobs), Pixar and Dreamworks found themselves in a public feud concerning their films. Both studios were new in the late nineties with Pixar paving the way for computer animation with Toy Story and DreamWorks recently acquiring Pacific Data Images (PDI). Despite Pixar having already started work on A Bug’s Life, PDI began development of what would become Antz at the time they were purchased by DreamWorks. To be fair, I don’t know the full details of the story but these behind-the-scenes stories are fascinating. Twin films offer especially interesting stories as studios maneuver to outdo each or sabotage one another. What takes this story to another level is that it deals not just with twin films, but two studios working in a nascent and specific niche of cinema. The same two studios which still dominate the now dominating genre.