When his ant colony comes under attack from evil grasshoppers, idealistic young Flick sets off to recruit animals who will help defend their honour and lives. He happens upon a disgraced circus troupe who readily agree, with neither party fully aware of what they're getting themselves into...
A Bug's Life had the misfortune of having to follow two tough acts. As the second effort from John Lasseter's Pixar outfit, it had to live in the shadow of the highly successful Toy Story, and as the second CGI insect fable to hit the screens in 1998, it inevitably offered up characters and scenes very like those you saw in Antz.
However Antz, produced by ex-Disney top man Jeffrey Katzenberg's DreamWorks, aspired to a certain level of adult sophistication which is matched in A Bug's Life only in a wittily animated skit on those end credits sequences that include outtakes from the movie. As a proper Disney production, A Bug's Life instead goes all out for kid-friendliness with a lot of slapstick (including a literal gag where a stick insect gets slapped), a simple goodies versus baddies, underdog-comes-through storyline and a batch of appealing, comical characters.
As in Antz, the setting is an anthill where a foul-up misfit has a crush on the princess, but the plot here is more clear-cut, poaching the set-up from The Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven as crossed with the fable of The Grasshopper And The Ant. An isolated ant colony strives all season to assemble an offering of food for a roving band of tyrannical grasshoppers under the leadership of the glowering Hopper (voiced by Spacey). Flik (Foley, a stalwart of ace Canadian comedy troupe Kids In The Hall), an ant dreamer whose inventions never quite work, sets out to save the day by recruiting a band of warrior insects from a nearby bug city. He gets his antennae crossed and hires instead a broken-down flea circus who have to save the day using their performance skills.
Adults might experience a certain degree of impatience with the highly-guessable storyline, which is disappointingly straightforward after the multi-level cleverness of Pixar's other efforts, but children will respond not only to the bug-level knockabout but to the broad-strokes, loveable characters: a fat caterpillar who yearns to transform into "a beautiful butterfly", a pair of chortling Hungarian pillbug acrobats (both voiced by Michael McShane), the gentle-hearted but fearsome looking rhino-nosed beetle (Brad Garrett), a male ladybug (Denis Leary) who resents being taken for a girl, and the cowardly rantings of David Hyde Pierce's stick insect.
If Flik isn't quite up to the Woody Allen character in Antz, Julia Louis-Dreyfus' neurotic, hyperactive ant princess is more interesting than Sharon Stone's take on the same part. A Bug's Life is not quite as all-round great as Toy Story, or Finding Nemo, or The Incredibles, but in offering a lot of charm and imagination, some scary moments (the vertical take-off 'hoppers), excellent animated action and plenty of comedy, it ensures that it's still light years ahead of most live-action comedy output. And it saves its one Randy Newman song for the end so you don't have the action hobbled by musical numbers the way traditional Disney 'toons have been in the last ten years. It's just a shame that, set against the rest of the Pixar output, it offers nothing new.
Though not as deep, philosophical or vocally star-studded as Antz, Pixar's insect nation is every bit as eye-popping, and kids who don't love it are very likely to become zealous members of some future Trenchcoat Mafia.