Why ‘A Bug’s Life’ is Pixar’s most underappreciated masterpiece

In 1995, Pixar burst onto the scene with one of the greatest animated movies of all time, Toy Story. Nearly 30 years and 26 films later, the studio is still a leader of animated storytelling, responsible for some of the most iconic animated movies of all time and a success ratio unmatched by nearly any other studio, with a roster that includes Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall-E, Ratatouille, Inside Out, Coco, Turning Red and more.

But that track record had to start somewhere. One great movie is a victory, but two great movies is a trend and sets a precedent. Three years after Toy Story, Pixar released its second feature film, A Bug’s Life – the studio’s most underappreciated masterpiece.

Out of Pixar’s first 10 years, A Bug’s Life is tragically the only movie released during that time that has not been developed into a franchise. Even so, it is foundational to the Pixar formula, planting the seeds (pun intended) of the visual ingenuity, emotional core and style of humor the studio would become famous for.

Credit: Disney/Pixar

A Bug’s Life is a gorgeous movie to watch. The way the film brings the audience down to the level of an ant and shows us what the world looks like from that perspective is incredible. Light is especially fascinating from that point of view – seeing it filtered through blades of grass and clovers and the soft neon glow that is found underground in the ant colony – just breathtaking. And the level of detail in Pixar movies has always been admirable, but in A Bug’s Life it really comes into its own. You could spend hours going through the city sequence frame by frame and find incredible details of what certain buildings are made out of or how the bugs live in this world.

The character designs are also instantly iconic. The look and design of the bugs still holds up today. The blues and purples of the ants, the shimmer on Dim’s back, Gypsy’s wings, and even the flakes of Molt’s skin are all stunning. And these characters benefited from the computer graphics more so than some characters in Toy Story because they didn’t have to look like people. Go back and look at Andy from the first Toy Story – he’s terrifying. Bugs were easier to create because they weren’t trying to look hyper realistic.

Credit: Disney/Pixar

It may not be evident on first watch, but A Bug’s Life – like most Pixar movies – deals with some pretty heavy and complex themes. Flik is an ant unlike any other – he’s innovative, forward thinking and regularly questions the status quo. His individualism causes friction between him and the rest of the colony until it nearly tears them apart. His journey, and his journey together with Princess Atta, searches for a balance between his individualism and innovative spirit with the traditions of a longstanding society. It highlights the importance of understanding the differences in each other and finding your place where you can be fully appreciated.

Likewise, the circus bugs struggle with being appreciated, especially from P.T. Flea. That disappointment leads them to their fateful meeting with Flik and their adventure to Ant Island. The culture clash that occurs between the circus bugs and the ants shows how differing perspectives can still come together and work as one. Both the circus bugs and the ant colony come to recognize the importance of community, whether it’s your true family (i.e., the colony) or the family you choose (i.e., the circus).

Community is also the key to defeating the movie’s villains, Hopper and his gang. In the climax, Flik is able to remind his colony of the power they hold when they work together – something he had to relearn himself throughout the movie. Only then are they able to overpower Hopper and scare away the rest of the grasshoppers. The ants defeat the grasshoppers not solely through physical force, but by coming together and working together as one.

(There’s certainly a reading of this movie that’s a bit more explicitly socialist – the working class overturns the ruling class/oppressors – but I don’t have time to get into all that.)

Finally, there’s the most direct and repeated theme in A Bug’s Life: “Pretend it’s a seed, okay?” Flik first introduces this idea early in the movie to the young Princess Dot, who is frustrated that she can’t fly yet or do anything important. Flik tries to explain how she’s still a seed (but it’s a rock), but with time, patience and growth, she will blossom into a giant and powerful tree. It’s a reminder that we all still have growing and learning to do, but we all have the potential for greatness.

The seed returns later after Flik has been kicked out of the colony and Dot has to convince him to come back to save them. Again, she uses the seed (well, it’s a rock) to remind Flik of the potential he has and what he can become if he returns to save the colony.

Credit: Disney/Pixar

The seed/rock runner is also one of the funniest jokes of the entire movie. And A Bug’s Life is packed full of humor, especially genius bug puns. From the very first scene, we’re introduced to this bug humor when a leaf falls (foreshadowing!) into the line of ants and they immediately panic, thinking they’ll never find their way back.

The city sequence is bursting with hilarious bug puns, from the mosquito ordering an “O positive” Bloody Mary at the bar to the slug reacting to salt in his food. And everything Richard Kind does as Hopper’s bumbling brother Molt is hysterical. Even small, one-off moments that can be easy to miss never fail to make me laugh, like that one kid ant who clearly doesn’t want to be in Mr. Soil’s play and delivers his lines with such distain.

And the bloopers! A Bug’s Life was the first of only three Pixar movies (Toy Story 2 – the best Toy Story – and Monsters Inc. are the others) to have bloopers during the end credits that act as if the characters are real actors who forget their lines, make mistakes, and have cameras, directors and boom operators behind the screen. And they’re hilarious.

While the humor is easy to find in A Bug’s Life, that notorious Pixar emotion doesn’t hit you over the head quite as hard as future movies do. There’s no “When She Loved Me” song like in Toy Story 2, no tearful goodbye to Bing Bong like in Inside Out, and certainly no sequences like the openings of Up or Finding Nemo.

But that doesn’t mean that the emotion isn’t there at all. I dare you to watch the scene after Flik returns to the colony and Hopper crashes the bird and tell me you don’t get emotional. Flik finally stands up to Hopper and simultaneously puts the grasshoppers in their place and inspires his colony (including the circus bugs) to rise up against them: “Ants don’t serve grasshoppers! It’s you who need us! We’re a lot stronger than you say we are… And you know it, don’t you?” Chills. Every time.

Likewise, in the final moments of the movie, the colony finally recognizes Flik’s talent and what he has done for them, so they break out into applause to thank him. While this is emotional in isolation, when you remember that this same colony broke out into applause earlier in the film because they were thankful Flik was leaving…that’s called growth, y’all. It’s powerful.

Credit: Disney/Pixar

I could go on and on and on about A Bug’s Life. It’s one of the most foundational movies in my life. I was 8 years old when it came out and every frame is burned into my head forever. To this day, I still get excited any time I see a praying mantis or a stick bug in the wild. I may not be quite as soft on ants anymore, but Flik, Atta and Dot are like family.

So I could go on about how genuinely thrilling the circus bugs’ rescue of Dot from the bird is; I could go on about the fascinating portrayal of gender and gender roles through Francis and the Blueberries; I could go on about the iconic and legendary voice cast; I could go on about the incredible Randy Newman score that has been stuck in my head since 1998…but I won’t.

Hopefully this has been enough to convince you that A Bug’s Life is truly a masterpiece. Revisit it if you haven’t in a while and enjoy a story about overcoming fear, being true to yourself, the importance of community and finding your place in this world. While other Pixar movies may be more famous these days, A Bug’s Life does not deserve to be forgotten. I certainly won’t let it.

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