A Bug's Life. Dir. John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton. Disney Pixar. 1998.
A Bug’s Life follows an ant colony in their struggle to keep the peace and tradition of providing food for their oppressors, the grasshoppers. Moments before they arrive to collect the offering, protagonist Flik accidentally causes the food to fall into a river thus leaving the ants with no offering and greatly angering the grasshoppers. Flik is expelled from the colony (on the pretence that he thinks he is going to find help), who are given one more chance to fulfil tradition. Upon returning from his travels, Flik acquires circus bugs (whom he mistakes for tough fighting bugs) and a plan to scare the Grasshoppers into leaving the ant colony in peace. The plan to build a bird that will scare the grasshoppers has infallible potential, until it accidentally catches fire and they are caught out. Nevertheless, the ants realise that they massively outnumber the grasshoppers and rise up against them to drive them out of their colony forever more.
Released in 1998, Lasseter’s A Bug’s Life was the second Computer Generated Image (CGI) release for Disney Pixar and firmly sets itself within the animation sub-group of family film. It is more fitting to think of animation as a mode of production rather than a genre in itself because it can simultaneously present narratives of multiple genres like comedy, tragedy or action and adventure. This genre attracts a broad audience of all ages due to the polysemic nature of characters and plot; use of a double sided humour which engages both younger and older audience members, whilst still maintaining a clear message of moral value via an entertaining plot. Film critic, Derek Bouse has asserted that throughout history, humans and animals have been interchangeable in what are essentially human dramas1 and this makes it easy for children to see the animals depicted in the film as representative of human behaviour. Distancing this human behaviour by depicting it through animals allows us to be more objective on criticisms that are depicted in behaviour, as we are not biased by our ideas of humans as essentially better than animals. All of these features of the family film genre cumulate to make it engaging for all viewers, no matter what their age. Younger children and presented with educative, moral ideas that they can relate to their own lives, and predictability of the narrative, for adults is pleasurable to watch. As adults, we will have more fully rounded ideas of right and wrong and seeing these play out in which good triumphs is satisfying because we can see the success of human thought and see it applied to fictive narratives. This style of animation further engages the audience as it brings to life heavily anthropomorphised creatures who display different character traits as well as development. By anthropomorphisation, we mean that the animals in the film can clearly be seen to be displaying behavioural patterns, actions, speech and modes of thought that we also do as humans, and returning to the idea of being distanced from ourselves in the form of non-human beings, we can see where they fail to be morally just or good and then apply this to the actions of ourselves and our own society. By using visually three dimensional animation to bring these characters to life who all move with smooth recognisable motions that are both true (even if exaggerated) to the real animal they depict and recognisable as similar to our own, producers can construct the meaning they wish to present to viewers exactly as they wish it to be portrayed.
Loosely based on one of Aesop's fables, the Ant and the Grasshopper, the film acts as an allegory in which different characters and events are purposefully representative of a deeper moral significance. The CGI animation primarily appeals to our desire to delight in the film's visual attraction. Bright, vivid colours are used to present the bugs and their natural environment; the majority of characters speak in human voices using inflection, varying tones and volumes to convey human emotions and response; the cinematic soundtrack that makes use of a full band: percussion and woodwind connote soothing relaxing times of peace, staccato strings suggest tension and a full brass band which implies success and a happy ending which we are used to from other Disney adventure films.
The complete lack of human presence in the film pushes us to look beyond the aesthetically pleasing to uncover the more metaphorical meaning. This is because typically, when animals are used in film, they are presented as an other or a non-human creature as a means to 'elevate human status'2 and devalue those non-humans who we often see as not having the intellectual of physical capacity to live by those moral codes we humans pride ourselves on. However, because this film does not have human presence that sets the bar for morality, we must look to the characters within this plot and see them as symbols of morality and just behaviour. The ants become physically real manifestations of abstract ideas of virtue and morality thus, we align ourselves and our human ideologies of good with those familiar ones we see the ants display. It is interesting to see that because the lack of human presence leads us to align ourselves with the ants, the very idea of humanity is essentially othered because we cannot compare or contrast the behavioural attitudes of the ants to anything else.
Humans and their social orders have been displaced and substituted by animals who act as a mirror, reflecting how their hierarchical systems are not so dissimilar and therefore potentially good. This relates to a practice, director and scholar Paul Wells coins as the ' hybrid humanimal'.3 Structures of the human social world are seemingly replicated in that of the animal kingdom. We can see then, that producers have created meaning for us by forming parallels between the world and lives of the animals and world and lives of our own. These similarities prompt us to think of animals (who we often see as inferior beings), as just a different type of being with equal importance in the universe to our own instead of feeling a disdain for what we usually see as repulsive with no intellectual capacity.
In fact, Lasseter encourages us to look at the ant colony as something aspirational. Protagonist, Flik is outcast from his community, but despite this he continues to display agape (unconditional) love by never giving up on trying to help and protect those he cares for. We can argue that Flik is the most anthropomorphised character throughout the film, as his actions and intentions draw clear parallels with how as moral beings, us humans would act towards our own communities. We can see then, that human intentions have been applied to the basis of Flik's urge to help others as well as improve his own character and those around him. This application of human ideas to the actions of animals makes a far clearer connection between our similarities towards this species, which pushes us to have more emotional investment in their mission to succeess.
The sequential narrative of the ants reminds us of a storytelling method often applied to humans whereby we follow individual characters through the perils of youth, through to the trials of adolescence, usually resulting in a 'tale of microscopic triumph'.4 Not only do we see the development of individual characters, but we see the change in mindset of the whole ant colony. Initially, the community is fragmented into separate, disparate groups: the overall working body of ants that follow orders, those in charge and those who do not fit into their assigned roles. Flik cannot conform or submit to the working ant collective because of his individualism, Princess Atta is not yet comfortable within her role as (future) leader and Dot, the younger princess, is too young to fly and to be taken seriously by her peers who often tease her.
Unlike Flik who is heavily anthropomorphised, Dot’s undeveloped state as a young child who comes across as cute is depicted as being less aligned with an adult human, and more similar to youth in general amongst animals. Her small stature, disproportionate (due to undeveloped) features such as head:body and eyes:face ratio and weaker, quieter voice separates her visually and audibly from the other ants. It is interesting to note that the position of leadership is undisputedly female. This could be Disney’s attempt to invert gender roles and stereotypes. This, however, is undercut by the type of leadership that is displayed. Gendered anthropomorphic traits have been thrust upon Princess Atta's expression, where her tone of voice is high and questioning, implying uncertainty and she physically cowers when intimidated by Hopper. So, we don’t initially have much faith in who will be the next leader because of the perpetuated prejudiced idea of the weak indecisive female leader.
We witness a development of all of these three ants in which they accept themselves and they are accepted within the community. By developing more logical ways of thinking, Flik learns that he does not have to do everything himself in order to show his unconditional love for his community. Dot's development physically matches that of her in terms of a character: she learns to use her wings and fly, which allows her to help her peers and be taken seriously, thus is a more influential character in the plot as part of a natural process. Princess Atta’s self-development is shown through both true physical animal maturation and anthropomorphism: she finds her voice and is able to communicate to her subjects with clear assertion.
On the contrary, the Grasshoppers stand to represent humans of bad intention. Using Wells’ theory, we can cast them as a critical human character. Elements of their animality highlight ignoble human characteristics such as greed, improvidence and violence. Visually, they are presented in opposition to the ants: they are large, dull coloured, sharp creatures with scaly skin and spindly limbs; nothing about them is visually endearing whereas the ants’ smooth round body shapes, large eyes and unimposing demeanour are appealing. Both children and adults emotional response of repulsion leads us to recognise them inherently bad due to our gut instinct of opposing to something that does not appeal to our senses. Here, producers have deliberately exploited their ability to manipulate our response to certain visual images on screen, which causes opposing responses to how we interpret those good characters who are visually appealing to us. This reveals further how animation is an easier mode to create meaning because every aspect can be carefully manipulated to evoke specific response. Hopper’s ‘pet’ (also a grasshopper) Thumper is presented through animalisation in that he doesn’t speak an identifiable language and appears basely violent and aggressive. We interpret this pure violence as bad because it affects those characters we sympathise with. However, if we consider the real animal kingdom, this amoral violence displayed by Hopper, who is charcterised by 'pure animal'5 is a much more true representation of a true predatory grasshopper.
Nevertheless, the displacement of humans for animals in the film is central to our understanding of it as having some kind of moral message for us to take in and apply to our own lives. We can recognise honourable behavioural traits in the animals and see how they should and can be applied to our own lives. The ant colony exemplifies the morality we should try to follow. Their inherent good nature of hard work, co-operation and mutual care for one another are hard to ignore and it is these modes of living that ultimately garner their success. This thought then encourages us to re-think how we see ourselves at the centre and in control of the Earth and all the smaller, less civilised and unintelligent species when these ants have displayed intelligence and ingenuity that we as humans, sometimes lack. The film tag-line: ‘An epic of miniature proportions’ highlights this idea of relativity of size not determining hierarchies and social orders. We must not forget that all of these conclusions we come to are not sudden flashes of insightful knowledge, they have been carefully created and crafted throughout the duration of the film by the mode of animation. Every single aspect has been carefully considered in order for us to come to such a verdict of the apparent ability for all species to have capacity for intelligence and just morals to guide them through life.
I really enjoy that this film is pure animal in the fact that we do not need the presence of humans to act as symbols of morality or to guide the plot towards liberation from former savagery. This is sadly the case in many of Disney’s other animated animal films, for example, The Jungle Book where the human character- Mowgli learns how to be a good person through the animals who take him in, but is ultimately liberated from this savagery to civilisation when he chooses to live with the humans at the end of the film. This suggests that only humans have the capacity to care for others and provide a morally virtuous upbrining for their young.
1 Derek Bouse, Wildlife Films, (Pittsburgh: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000) p.136
2 Sarah E. McFarland, 'The Animal as verb: Liberating the Subject of Animal Studies', JAC, vol.30, no.31, (2010) pp813-823), p.816
3 Paul Wells, The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons and Culture, (London: Rutgers University Press, 1961), p.52
4 Derek Bouse, Wildlife Films (Pittsburgh: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000) p.136
5 Paul Wells, The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons and Culture, (London: Rutgers University Press, 1961), p.52
Ideas for further reading:
Pickavance, Mark, 'The CGI Achievements of Pixar', Den of Geek, (2010) <https://www.denofgeek.com/movies/417298/the_cgi_achievements_of_pixar.html> [Accessed 24/11/13].
Brew, Simon 'The Forgotten Pixar Movie: A Bug's Life', Den of Geek, (2007) <https://www.denofgeek.com/movies/13060/the-forgotten-pixar-movie-a-bugs-life > [Accessed 24/11/13].
Muntittrick, Kyle, Kalmbach Publishing company, 'The Hidden Message in Pixar's Films' Discover Magazine, (2011) <https://blogs.discovermagazine.com/sciencenotfiction/2011/05/14/the-hidden-message-in-pixars-films/#.Upat3MSpWSq > [Accessed 20/11/13].
Wells, Paul, The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons, and Culture, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2009).
American Movie Classics Company, Animated Films, ‘AMC Filmsite’ (2013) https://www.filmsite.org/animatedfilms.html [Accessed 22/11/13].
Wikia Entertainment, ‘A Bug’s Life’, The Disney Wiki, <https://disney.wikia.com/wiki/A_Bug%27s_Life> [Accessed 20/11/2013]