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At the circus: A Bug’s Life

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!

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Roddy’s character Mr. Soil is also a thespian.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Rosie is a black widow spider, or black widow widow since she lost 12 husbands. She’s a motherly sort, very witty and kind.

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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.

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“Tralalala, spring is in the air, and I’m a flower, with nothing interesting to say.”
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“I AM A CUTE LITTLE BUMBLEBEE! HERE I COME!”

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Gypsy is a moth, and wife/assistant to preying mantis magician Manny, possibly the most eccentric of the bunch.

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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!”

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“Swish swish, clang clang.”

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.

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A charming illustration of the eventual bloodbath by Mrs. Olive’s second grade class.
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“We drew one of you dying because our teacher said it would be more dramatic.”

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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.

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“I don’t know what you’re concocting in that little ant brain of yours, but we’ll have no part of it.”

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.

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Images here gratefully taken from Disney Screencaps.

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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.

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10 thoughts on “At the circus: A Bug’s Life

  1. *cracks knuckles*

    You know I could write a thesis (or ten) about this movie. As this is my movie. Made for me. Made to shape my life. I refuse to believe otherwise. And overshadowed it is indeed. I feel as though too many people tend to forget that this movie was only Pixar’s second and it came at a time when the company wasn’t branded for pulling on the heartstrings and making folks cry; while I think there are more emotional moments in Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo which would be on par with some of the later films (and what I mean is all the films have emotional moments, but those in your face moments comparable to the moments people bring up regarding UP, TS3, etc.), I’d say in the popular audience’s mind Pixar can be separated in two eras at this point: pre UP and post UP. After UP destroyed the audience in the first ten minutes and then manipulated nostalgia a year later with Toy Story 3, this has become the trademark of the company.

    And yes, as much as I adore Toy Story 3, it manipulated nostalgia to get and keep a lot of its high praise. IF one were to take away the plot involving Andy nearing adulthood and the toys’ having to deal with separation and change, we would have just another Toy Story movie where the toys get lost and somehow and have to make it back home. It would have been a formula and just as ill-remembered as Toy Story 2 among the canon. All they did to make the formula more unique is play off the fact that the original audience of the first two films were older and so making Andy older just made sense (they didn’t do that with Nemo in Finding Dory, so it was clearly a creative choice to add weight to the film). Again, I’m fine with that. It sets the movie apart, but it’s also not by any means new. They already touched on this dilemma in Toy Story 2 (again, another overshadowed film). Jessie has already gone through this and Woody nearly shipped himself off to Japan to avoid abandonment. Really, all Toy Story 3 did was answer Buzz’s question at the end of the second film: “Are you worried?” The film was beautiful. It was emotional. It was a lot of things. A unique triumph as it is toted regularly by a lot who watched at a pique of nostalgia fever… it is not. And it leaves a LOT of questions as anyone whose spent any time deep in the fandom knows from fandom’s attempt to answer them (e.g. how does Jessie remember Emily, but Woody not remember whoever owned him or where he came from? seeing as he’s an old toy and seeing as Toy Story and Toy Story 2 both establish toys don’t need to have been owned by a kid before they become conscious even if there’s never been a bond. So was Woody just some toy sitting unopened and unbonded with a kid before he came to Andy years and years and years after he was manufactured? etc.) These unanswered gaps in the narrative is precisely why I respect anyone (and many in the devout fandom do!) tackles the Cars films from this angle to show how it could be better.

    In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Monsters University, which angered many before it even had a chance to be judged fairly and wasn’t lauded by critics and so on was far more daring in its message. It managed to tackle realistic unfair systematic politics in school and work (e.g. college career vs. working your way op from the bottom, classism expectations), it managed to tackle contentment in life vs. being number one, it managed to tackle self-esteem, it managed to tackle internalized issues (seriously, you can apply a host of internalized issues to Sully’s struggle to meet expectations from the at-face-value classist ones on him as a high-profile golden son to internalized homophobia depending on how each individual chooses to relate to his struggle). It managed to dare and say sometimes giving it your best isn’t good enough…but maybe it’s because you’re doing the wrong thing in the first place and dares you to examine why it is you’re doing what you’re doing or look for another angle to overcome when life makes things damn hard.

    Which brings me to A Bug’s Life at last. This film has a whole host of progressive narrative: social stigmas, colonialism vs. progress, oppression, individuality vs. hive mindset, understanding that one can maintain their independent worth and purpose while also promoting community where everyone works together to affect change or stand against oppression or create a stronger, better society. That’s just to name some of the things that can be gleaned from the film. So, that it is overshadowed, is it any wonder that this year we’ve seen how divided this nation is? Because maybe, just maybe one half is saying, “We’re a lot stronger than you say we are. And you know it, don’t you?” And that scares the other half. It’s such a beautiful film and truly a unique triumph, but alas everyone just uses the old, “It doesn’t make me cry” or some similar excuse. Yes, well, I’d argue that it’s much easier to make a person cry (or feel some other emotion) than it is to make a person think. And A Bug’s Life does the latter, and subjectively I’d say it’s pretty entertaining while it does.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Are you just trying to show me up with this comment?? Haha.

      I don’t think many people realize that Pixar didn’t start out as this emotional string pulling movie studio. Even Toy Story wasn’t heartbreaking. Speaking for myself, I actually do cry at ABL. “I want you to leave Flik. And this time, don’t come back.” Not emotional?? PLEASE. There are tears brimming at the corners of my stupid eyes as I type this. And if you know me at all, you know I totally agree with you about MU. I remember going through a period of ~uncertainty~ and giving a pep talk to my friend (this was a month after we graduated college and after MU came out), and how I related a lot to Sulley. People refuse to look for these meanings for w/e reason. Every Pixar film is meaningful to me, even Cars 2. I’m not saying that it has to be the same for everyone, and obviously I’m biased and clearly don’t care, but not one of these films are bad or have nothing to offer. My first draft of this post was a lot longer and detailed, about Flik and how his story is about modernity/progress vs. antiquity and how the colony doesn’t want to look to the future because it’s not secure. And that’s totally understandable. I love Flik but can’t deny that if I was in a position of power (limited bc of Hopper), I’d be frustrated at his constant mistakes and needing to fix every one of them. But then I also sympathize with him bc you can’t have progress w/out a few mistakes.

      !!! Great point too about our divided nation.

      And thanks for the comment, I love being able to discuss these films, especially an overlooked masterpiece like this one. You’ll always be Atta to me. :,)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Who are these people and are any single and looking for an asexual relationship!? Lol. But that’s awesome. I only know of one person who feels this way. She’s awesome though so.

        Like

  2. Also, I just realized why 2016 was horrible. I haven’t watched A Bug’s Life at all this year. I must remedy this immediately so that the balance can be restored! (*sings* Who am I? I’m the ant who loves my island. I’m the ant who loves creativity. It calls me.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Awesome! It was a treip down memory lane. I agree that A Bug’s Life is a wonderful movie (like the Good Dinosaur) overshadowed by its predecessor. And Slim IS the best of them all. I love when I find GIFs of his performances!
    Thanks for joining us at the grand finale!
    Kisses!
    Le

    Liked by 1 person

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