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.

Most anticipated movies of 2020

2019 was a record-setting year for movies. Beloved franchises like The Avengers, Star Wars and How to Train Your Dragon closed out final chapters of their franchises and original stories like Parasite, Knives Out and Jojo Rabbit also did well, delivering a wide variety of movie options for moviegoers to enjoy.

Now with 2019 behind us, we can look forward to a new decade with endless possibilities. Here are 10 of the biggest and most anticipated movies to look forward to next year.

Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (Feb. 7)

Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was the only decent piece of 2016’s Suicide Squad, so it makes sense that DC would try to salvage what they could to bring new life to their cinematic universe. The outrageous title shows that this movie will be like nothing we’ve seen before from a superhero franchise. Between Birds of Prey, Black Widow and Wonder Woman 1984, female heroes and villains will have a big year in 2020, but after Joker, it will be interesting to see how DC markets their shared universe moving forward.

Mulan (Mar. 27)

This live-action remake has the potential to truly be a unique retelling of Mulan’s story, unlike most of Disney’s previous remakes, which did little more than make the same movie as before. This version of Mulan looks much more serious and grounded (there’s no Mushu and it’s not a musical), so it’ll be interesting to see how this plays with audiences going to see it with nostalgia for the original cartoon on their minds.

Black Widow (May 1)

Marvel begins Phase 4 by looking back. Black Widow is certainly an interesting choice to kick off Phase 4, but it’s certainly something fans have wanted for years. Natasha deserves her own story and as one of the main heroes we know so little about, there will be plenty to cover in her solo movie. I just hope it gives this iconic character a respectable sendoff since this could be the last time we see her in this universe.

Wonder Woman 1984 (June 5)

Wonder Woman was a breath of fresh air for the DCEU back in 2017 and gave us some truly iconic superhero moments. Now, the sequel jumps to the 1980s and has Diana facing the Cold War and new foes while a blast from her past confuses everything. I loved the first Wonder Woman and the 80s so this should be another favorite for superhero fans.

Soul (June 19)

Soul is the second of two original movies Pixar will release next year. After a few years of (somewhat unnecessary) sequels to their greatest hits, it’s nice to see Pixar telling new stories again. Soul looks like the more interesting of the two 2020 Pixar offerings and already gives off serious Inside Out vibes (one of my personal favorites). Hopefully Soul matches that same level of creativity and emotion to bring another Pixar hit.

In the Heights (June 26)

Has anyone had a better decade than Lin-Manuel Miranda? Following the earth-shattering success of Hamilton, Miranda’s first musical is coming to the big screen. In the Heights tells the story of the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City with Miranda’s trademark lyrical wizardry. Anthony Ramos (another Hamilton alum) leads the cast in this incredible story of a Latinx community’s hopes and dreams.

Bill & Ted Face the Music (Aug. 21)

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is an incredible underrated masterpiece that came to me at a truly formative time in my life (seventh grade). The original movie was followed by a less-than-stellar sequel in 1991, but now that Hollywood will reboot or revive literally anything that came out in the 1980s and early 90s, a third film is scheduled for next year. It’s turned out to be perfect timing with Keanu Reeves experiencing a resurgence in his career in 2019. I cannot wait to see what middle-aged Bill and Ted are like and how the music of Wyld Stallions will save the future this time.

The King’s Man (Sept. 18)

The original Kingsman movie is one of my favorite movies of all time, so I’m super interested in this origin story of the elite spy agency. The first two Kingsman movies relied so heavily on gadgets and technology, so it’ll be challenging to make that a crucial part of this story when it’s set in the 1910s. And with a third Kingsman starring Eggsy potentially on the way, I’ll bet this will somehow tie in to that story as well.

The Eternals (Nov. 6)

This feels like Marvel’s biggest gamble since Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s about a group of beings that not even many die-hard Marvel comics fans know much about but could change the MCU as we know it. The Eternals has an incredible cast (Angelina Jolie! Richard Madden! Salma Hayek! Kumail Nanjiani!), so here’s hoping that the story matches their star power.

West Side Story (Dec. 18)

The original West Side Story is a cornerstone of movie musicals. Normally, I would be opposed to remaking something so iconic, but with Stephen Spielberg at the helm of this new version with a great cast, it has a chance to be worth seeing. I think the Jets/Sharks dynamic will also be interesting in today’s climate, especially given the racial divide between the two gangs.

Is Disney too big?

How many movies have you seen this year? If I listed the 10 highest grossing movies of the year, there’s a 50% chance you saw a Disney movie. The average American usually sees 5-6 movies in theaters each year and Disney is becoming an increasingly large portion of those movies. A big question the movie industry has been considering this year is whether or not Disney has gotten too big.

Now, I’m a total Disney fanboy. Disney movies were some of the first movies I ever saw growing up, and I sold my soul to Marvel right around the time the first Avengers came out in 2012. But I think it’s important to be able to be critical of things you love, when necessary.

Disney has dominated the box office in the past few years, but in 2019 it reached a new level with the acquisition of 20th Century Fox. Disney movies make up around 40% of tickets sold in the US. Through the first half of 2019, Disney made more than $2 billion at the box office. The next highest gross was Warner Brothers with $858 million. That’s a pretty massive jump. And as of October 2019, Disney holds five of the 10 highest grossing movies of the year (and co-produced a sixth) – all of which have made more than $1 billion. And that’s WITHOUT Frozen II and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

From Boxofficemojo.com (as of 11/21/19)

The fear is that the domination of Disney and mega-blockbusters will drown out smaller, riskier and more experimental movies. When certain kinds of movies continue to flop, studios will stop making them. Plus, expensive blockbusters demand more screens so more people will see them. That doesn’t leave much room for those other movies to be seen.

So, you may ask, why don’t other movies open on non-Disney weekends? Well, that’s getting harder to do. Disney has carved out the best opening weekends for its biggest properties for the next few years. Beginning in 2021, Marvel alone will release four movies a year. Marvel fans may be foaming at the mouth at that idea, but when those movies stay at the top of the box office and on thousands of screens for two or three weeks after opening, that becomes eight or twelve weekends dominated by Marvel. Then throw Pixar, Star Wars, Fox and proper Disney movies in the mix and there’s very little room for much else.

But why does it matter if Disney keeps making great movies?

Well…are they? Let’s look at Disney’s billion-dollar movies this year:

  • Marvel continues to be a critical darling. While not everyone loves these movies, there’s no denying that Endgame was a generation-defining movie and an incredibly satisfying ending to the first phase of the MCU. Captain Marvel was a solid new entry for the franchise, even if it’s not one of Marvel’s best solo films. Spider-Man: Far From Home (co-produced with Sony) had decent reviews and probably benefitted from a post-Endgame boost.
  • Toy Story 4 was a surprisingly solid entry to Pixar’s flagship franchise. After Toy Story 3, most people didn’t think 4 would be necessary, but it justified its existence and told a compelling story.
  • And then there’s the two live-action remakes: Aladdin and The Lion King. Did we need these? Absolutely not. Aladdin is by far the better of the two, developing Jasmine’s character and an acceptable performance by Will Smith as the Genie. But Jafar’s characterization was disappointing and giving Genie a love interest was a bizarre choice. At least it made some new choices though. The Lion King stuck so closely to the original story that it was almost an identical cut. The visuals in the remake were incredible, but by going all-in on the realism of the animals, we lost all emotion and expression in their characters.

So how are all these movies dominating the box office if not all of them are great?

Nostalgia (especially for the 80s and 90s) is king right now in Hollywood, and all five of these movies using it to their advantage. Aladdin and Lion King are remakes of two of the most beloved Disney movies of all time. Disney knew audiences would run to the theater to relive these stories and hear those iconic songs again.  

Toy Story 4 drew on nostalgia from the 25-year history of its franchise, even bringing back Bo Peep, a character that hadn’t been seen since 1999. The original Toy Story was groundbreaking in both storytelling and technology and the series is one of a few where each installment is critically acclaimed.

Even Marvel drew on its own nostalgia. Endgame was marketed as the culmination of an 11-year-old, 22-movie franchise and a lot of the marketing for both Endgame and Infinity War called back to the early days of the MCU. Interestingly, Captain Marvel also drew on 90s nostalgia this year with a story set in 1995.

The Disney train isn’t slowing down either. Disney has 84 release dates on the calendar through 2023, including 13 Marvel movies, two Avatar sequels, six Pixar movies, more Star Wars, and a host of live-action remakes and originals. 

So is this actually a bad thing?

Maybe? Disney is not leaving a lot of room for other kinds of movies to get the breathing room they need. But other studios have to step up their game and make good content people actually want to see. 2019 has had its fair share of box office bombs, and many of those have been big-name franchises.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix ended the franchise that kicked off the modern superhero movie craze with a pathetic whimper. Audiences and critics alike hated it. Dark Phoenix is just the beginning, too. Terminator: Dark Fate, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Men in Black: International, Hellboy, The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep and Charlie’s Angels are all reboots or sequels to formerly beloved franchises that have flopped or underperformed in 2019.

There is some good news outside of Disney, though. Joker made headlines around the world and made a billion dollars for Warner Bros. It: Chapter Two, while not as successful as its predecessor, was a win for the horror genre. Zombieland: Double Tap and the final installment of the How to Train Your Dragon franchise were also welcomed for both audiences and critics.

And it’s even harder for original stories. Some, like Quentin Tarantino’s latest Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, performed well and others surprised us, like Hustlers. Expectations are different for smaller movies as well. Us or Booksmart didn’t have to make a billion dollars to be considered successes.  

Does any of this matter?

If you love Disney, then you probably don’t care that much. As long as they keep making Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar movies, you’ll be happy. And I would be too. But there has to be a balance between nostalgia and new stories.

Next year will be interesting for Disney. They’ll kick off the next phase of the MCU – a soft reboot without Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr., and will have to figure out the future of Star Wars too.

The cinematic landscape is changing. One of the reasons I think the streaming wars have become so heated is because of audiences’ changing interests in movies. Netflix is now premiering movies that are in the running for Best Picture at the Oscars. Streaming offers more availability for more stories to be created and theaters will still offer an experience no home surround sound can match. I’ll continue to be an advocate for going to see movies in theaters, but the most important thing is that you watch, no matter where that may be.

Disney still makes great movies and has a strong brand identity that audiences can trust. But I challenge everyone to get out of your comfort zones every now and then and see a movie you don’t know much about. Go see The Rise of Skywalker in theaters, but then go watch Booksmart one night at home. It’s on Hulu. There’s so much out there to satisfy whatever cravings you have, and there’s plenty of room at the table.