A Bug’s Life is commonly referred to as one of Pixar’s lesser efforts. I vehemently disagree. But don’t just take my word for it!
The film is also notable for being Roddy Mcdowall’s last. He’s become one of my favorites this year, but thanks to Pixar, he’s always been part of my life. I love the ways Classic Hollywood connects to my childhood.
Pixar opted for a closer and tinier look at the sprawling beauty of the natural world, all from an ant’s point of view. It’s a gorgeous film. Aside from the visuals, the film boasts some rich worldbuilding and intricate details.
And into the icky but stunning world of bugs we go!
Flik (Dave Foley) is a budding inventor on Ant Island. He’s regarded as a nuisance and a troublemaker because he rejects the status quo. The queen’s advisers are constantly frustrated with Flik and his harebrained ideas. And so is Flik’s crush, Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). But they approve one of his crazy schemes because it’ll get him off the island. No Flik, no problem. And so this brave but naive little country ant sets out for the City. And warrior bugs.
The ants are “protected” by a gang of grasshoppers led by the fearsome Hopper (Kevin Spacey). The ants gather food for the grasshoppers and in exchange, the grasshoppers protect the ants from other bigger and more powerful bugs. Flik’s idea is to recruit even bigger bugs to fight the grasshoppers so the ants can finally be freed from their tyrannical rule.
It’s so quaint, besides being totally nonsensical. Warrior bugs! They must exist in the city. And Flik will bring them to Ant Island.
Since Flik is a misfit, it’s only too fitting that he recruits a band of misfit bugs. And unbeknownst to him, they’re actually circus performers.
P.T. Flea is the impatient and money grubbing circus ringmaster. His (failing) circus is comprised of some diverse and highly theatrical types.
Dim is a massive rhinoceros beetle and massive softie who wouldn’t hurt a fly (or flea). He’s a big baby who relies on his handler, Rosie.
Rosie is a black widow spider, or black widow widow since she lost 12 husbands. She’s a motherly sort, very witty and kind.
Slim, my favorite, is a walking stick bug who laments being cast as a prop in every single act. He’s highly neurotic, droll, and entertaining as a result.
Francis, the male ladybug with a short fuse, is Slim’s best friend. One of the most memorable scenes occurs when two jeering flies catcall (bug call??) him, believing him to be a girl. Francis gets all worked up into a rage and threatens to fight them both. And they take him up on it later.
Heimlich is an oversized caterpillar who longs to be a beautiful butterfly and is easily distracted by candy corn.
These three are clowns in the circus troupe.
Gypsy is a moth, and wife/assistant to preying mantis magician Manny, possibly the most eccentric of the bunch.
Tuck and Roll are twin pill bugs from Hungary who don’t speak English. They cause a lot of trouble and usually fight each other.
P.T. Flea’s Circus has not been a success. The spectators taunt and jeer. When they all start flying out of the tent, P.T. gets desperate. Flaming Death is the big spectacle that goes spectacularly wrong. It’s his last ditch attempt to keep the customers from leaving. A complicated and dangerous routine, P.T. is the one who gets burned. And he fires his troupe as a result.
The circus bugs head over to the bar to commiserate over their misfortune. And then the flies that Francis insulted earlier show up, and they’ve brought an enormous friend with them. So Francis, Slim, and Heimlich decide to perform one last routine – Francis as Robin Hood, Heimlich as Little John, and Slim as Robin’s sword. And who should overhear these “warriors”? Flik of course!
“Stand back, ye flies! We are the greatest warriors in all of bugdom!”
During the “battle”, Flik doesn’t realize that the warrior bugs defeated their foes by accident and sheer luck. But he’s found his warriors and they seize the chance to accompany him back to Ant Island. Flik doesn’t know they’re actually from a circus. They mistake him for a talent scout. Flik and the troupe are both in for a nasty surprise when the truth is revealed. The ant colony expects them to kill the grasshoppers.
And Flik would actually prefer death when they tell him they’re circus bugs. This is just one screw up too many. The colony would brand him a failure again, once and for all.
The circus bugs attempt to leave, but they’re prevented by a bird. From a bug’s point of view, birds are huge and terrifying. And besides screeching in the very early hours of the morning, they’re a hardcore species that evolved from dinosaurs. So when Atta and the ant colony witness the “warriors” narrowly escape this bird in a feat of daring heroics, rescuing her little sister Dot in the process, the ants are even more convinced that they’ll win against Hopper and his gang. And the whole plan was brilliantly orchestrated by Flik, who is quick witted even in the throes of panic.
After their close encounter with the bird, Flik comes up with another one of his harebrained ideas, so ridiculous it just has to work.
“Even Hopper’s afraid of birds,” Atta tells Flik, impressed by his courage. So the seed of an idea is planted in his brain. They can build a bird to scare away the grasshoppers. The circus troupe refuses at first.
And what finally convinces them to stay? The little kids in the ant colony who’ve found a new set of heroes. Heroes who faced off with a giant bird! Heroes who can beat the grasshoppers easily! So they stay to help Flik with the bird. And finally, after hearing nothing but boos and taunts throughout their career, finally applause.
And Flik becomes a hero to his colony too. Hopper is defeated and the ants can live without fear. It took teaming up with with other misfits bugs, whose talents were dismissed just like Flik’s ideas and inventions. Flik is the one who, in Manny’s words, “rekindled within them their long dormant sense of purpose.”
In the end, the troupe is re-hired by P.T. A brighter future at the circus awaits them. (A brighter, richer future for P.T. too). And they bid farewell to Flik as fellow heroes. And friends.
Images here gratefully taken from Disney Screencaps.
This post is for the At the Circus blogathon’s Grand Finale, which is nothing like Flaming Death. Click on the banner for more big top posts.