Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

It’s always distressing to see how holiday-kiddie-movie sausage gets churned out—the studio execs in their bloody aprons, the uplifting narratives herded into the killing floor, the fillers of unsavory provenance, like the Porsche in I’ll Be Home for Christmas, crammed in for mouth-feel. If they ever cared, audiences have forgotten about the Antz-vs.-A Bug’s Life showdown. That was about Hollywood rivalry and questions of intellectual property, anyway; what interests viewers is the movies’ content, and Antz has had its sorry say.

At this point, A Bug’s Life’s only competition is its Pixar predecessor, Toy Story. The new digitally animated effort, directed, as was the last, by John Lasseter, is better than Toy Story—sweeter, cuter, funnier, better-looking. Advances in digital technology seem to have loosened up the Pixar staff—they pack the film to its corners with jokes and grace notes and charming, bug-sized details. There’s real joy in the crafting of each of the insect characters. Fittingly for a story set in an ant colony, the film is a lesson in equality—there are no movie-star voices to distract the audience from the characters’ individuality.

Spinning Aesop’s useful fable of the ant and the grasshopper into a democratic call to arms, the story takes place during the ants’ harvesting season, when they must amass food for the lazy grasshopper bullies before gathering their own winter supply.

Disaster is always at hand in the ant world; if it doesn’t come from predators or their own rigid social system, the culprit is entomology, the facts of which the script cleverly sends up. The very first scene tracks the winding trail of worker ants as they haul one grain each toward a hilltop; a leaf drifts down in front of one stunned ant, who screams “I’m lost!”

Dave Foley (NewsRadio by way of Kids in the Hall) provides the voice of Flik, the colony’s hapless freethinker. Flik is working on a harvesting machine, but in his eagerness he destroys the food supply, enrages the grasshoppers, led by the menacing Hopper (Kevin Spacey), and is exiled from the colony by the queen (Phyllis Diller) and her daughter, Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus).

On his travels, Flik stumbles upon a down-at-the-heels flea circus—that is, a circus run out of an Animal Crackers box by a greedy, exploitative flea (John Ratzenberger). The performers’ acts are creative variations on their insect specialities—the glamorous gypsy moth (Madeline Kahn), an assistant to the praying mantis spiritualist-magician, dazzles the audiences with her many-eyed wings; Tuck and Roll are an acrobatic pill bug brother act who, like all acrobat families, speak a foreign language; Slim (David Hyde Pierce) is a snobbish, twiglike insect who resents filling in for every stick-shaped prop the circus needs. There are also an obese German moth (Joe Ranft), a sexy spider (Bonnie Hunt), and Francis, a pugnacious male ladybug (Denis Leary) coming to terms with his feminine side. An audience of rapt flies watches the action. When the ladybug attacks his hecklers, P.T. Flea admonishes, “C’mon, Francis, you’re makin’ the maggots cry.”

The ants and the performers have two different ideas of what “knock ’em dead” means, so Flik the hick—he looks up with awe at the skyline of the big city, like any country movie hero—mistakes them for warriors and recruits the whole show to come to Ant Island and fight off the grasshoppers. Because the characters are so beautifully molded, both physically and psychologically, this comedy of misunderstanding reaches fever pitch when the band of vain, colorful stragglers rolls onto the island to face the meek, anonymous ant colony.

A Bug’s Life makes all the right insect jokes and indulges in lyrical riffs on their limitations and ingenuity. The queen’s petal crown, Flik’s grass-blade-and-dewdrop telescope, and the snail shells that serve as trumpets attest to this microcosm’s resourcefulness. Some of the set pieces seem like padding—the flea circus in action, an extended rescue sequence when younger Princess Dot is abducted by a bird. Even though these pay off, the setup lingers.

But there isn’t a dull or indifferent scene in the film, and the fable is elegantly tweaked. The ants do not forsake their socialist society for the decadent pleasures of the grasshoppers, who are seen drinking and debauching in a sleazy cantina that takes the form of a ratty sombrero; instead, they rise from oppression by acknowledging the diverse talents of the showy new immigrants, who become leaders in technological as well as social progress without destroying their level of the ecosystem. As for the birds and grasshoppers, they’ll just have to get their own movie.

A Bug’s Life is screened with a clever short, also digitally animated, called Geri’s Game. Jan Pinkava wrote and directed this almost-silent gem in which an old man plays out a Nabokovian chess game of skill and deceit for very funny stakes. CP