As promised, this begins The Pixar Project, where I’m going to review all of the Pixar films in the run-up to the Dec. 25 release of Soul. If you know a friend or relative or Pixar aficionado who’d enjoy this project, please pass it along.
The magic of A Bug’s Life is the inversion of scale: it makes the tiny huge and the huge tiny.
The tiny-made-huge is obvious: the lives of literal bugs fill the screen. The huge-made-tiny are the mistakes and failures made by the characters on screen.
Bugs are, from a human’s point of view, almost defitionally overlooked. They’re tiny and (sometimes) scary and (sometimes) gross-seeming. The ants’ Queen, in describing their preparation for the gathering food for the ruthless grasshoppers, said, “Oh, it’ll be fine. It’s the same, year after year. They come, they eat, they leave. That’s our lot in life. It’s not a lot, but it’s our life.”
Life, for many, is fleeting. One bug, in watching a failure of a performance by the circus bugs, said bluntly, “I’ve only got 24 hours to live, and I ain’t gonna waste it here!”
Life is small. When P.T. Flea finds the acting troupe near the end of the film, he’s trying to convey just how big the crowds had been in order to convince them to return to the circus, and he said, “I’m serious. Word of mouth got around. The next day, there was a line of flies outside the tent, went on forever! It must have been a foot long!”
In reality, bugs are impressive and brilliant and essential. These traits weren’t likely on the minds of Pixar execs, screenwriters and artists, but through these lovable anthropomorphic bugs, they might just have elevated the lowly bug in the eyes of viewers.
The cleverness of the anthropomorphized elements was what made Toy Story such a hit that still rewards rewatches all these years later. There’s an attention to detail that is humorous and winking, and that strategy is abundantly clear in A Bug’s Life, which might just pack more clever jokes and references per scene than even Toy Story did. In the early moments of the movie, a worker ant is cut off from his next-in-line by a leaf that’s fallen across the path, and it spells certain doom as he freaks out.
The grasshopper gang’s response to their leader’s command to, “Let’s ride!” which sees them start their wings a-buzzing in a rumble that sounds like Harley-Davidsons in a biker gang. Flik’s rolled-and-bent leaf in the shape of a baseball cap. The big city’s streetlights formed by a lightning bug sticking its lit tail into burned-out Christmas lights, red and then green. A big blocky bug shaped very much like a bus, talking like a conductor, “Making all stops to the septic tank, including standing water, empty bean can and dead rat. Watch your stingers. All aboard!”
An empty can of lard forms a bar for bugs, complete with tiny tables made of bottle caps, waitresses serving poo-poo platters that end up swarmed by flies, and a slug’s mouth sizzling after eating an appetizer because the kitchen forgot to leave off the salt. The lush of a mosquito at the bar, already wobbling as he orders a “Bloody Mary, O+” and slurps it down by spearing with his proboscis and promptly passing out.
It’s a two-way humor, this anthropomorphizing. It takes elements of the human world and finds the bug-world analog (i.e., traffic lights), and it also takes things that bugs do and gives it a human rationale (i.e., mosquito drinking blood like drunkard drinks booze).
It’s that cleverness that operates on a deeper level that makes Pixar movies so enjoyable for parents while being aimed mostly at kids.
The tiny-made-huge element of the film was “because we can”; the huge-made-tiny element was “because we must.” The tiny-made-huge was cleverness run amok, to see how many jokes would land. The huge-made-tiny was the moral of the story, the takeaway for kids and adults alike.
The mistakes in our lives, the biggest failures we can muster, are not life-defining. Flik, the lovable loser who’s probably too smart for his own good and too clumsy to be trusted, sets the central dilemma into motion when he has the biggest screw-up of his life: He inadvertently destroys the offering of food to the grasshoppers that the ants have spent all summer harvesting.
It enrages the grasshoppers and results in an even steeper price expected of them: two times the amount of food, which will leave no food for the ants themselves. The entire rest of the film is the ants trying to manage the fallout from Flik’s failures.
Then giant failures are prominent throughout the film. The acting troupe of bugs was fired from the circus because an act utterly fell to pieces. Huge mistakes were made.
Flik hires them to serve as mercenaries for the ants because he mistakenly takes them for warrior bugs. Huge mistake.
The acting troupe of bugs mistakenly believes Flik is a talent scout who’s seeking their acting skills and showmanship. Huge mistake.
These mistakes, though huge in a given moment, don’t come to define these characters. They embrace their failures, and most of them take them for what failures should be in all of our lives: teachable moments.
It’s relatable for kids. They’re going to make mistakes because they don’t know any better. But it’s more relevant as a tool for reflection in adult viewers. As we get older, fewer and fewer of our mistakes can be blamed on “didn’t know any better.”
The brutal truth of most mistakes is that we make them despite thinking we know better. They’ve been thought through, maybe even rationally so, and we come to find out that we were simply wrong. For any number of reasons. For no reason at all.
Why’d I take this job? Why’d I move to that city? Why’d I marry that person? Why’d I push this person away? These end up being the real-world, grown-up failures and mistakes that haunt us, and almost every single one of them could have been preceded by a long list of pros and cons that, to our tally, showed the pros outnumbering the cons.
Those are the kinds of mistakes Flik made. We know by his characterization that he’s supposed to be seen as smart, perhaps the most clever in his entire ant hill, but his ideas always end up backfiring on him. His mistakes don’t define him though; they’re merely something that happens to him. They run counter to his intelligence, sure, but they don’t supplant his intelligence. He’s still a smart bug.
It’s a much-needed reminder when we’re in the midst of just such a mistake or failure. These mistakes won’t be printed on our tombstones; they’re not the be all, end all of our lives. They’re not, in fact, our lot in life, as the Queen said. Unlike the bug’s view of a bug’s life, our lives actually contain quite a lot, so much more than our mistakes.
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