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Holy Hell! A Bug’s Life Turns 20

Holy Hell! A Bug’s Life Turns 20

When looking at the names in the production teams, there are still few, if any, women in leadership roles with Pixar movies.

Long before Ant-Man became one of Marvel’s endless stream of hits, there were in fact a whole slew of loveable cinematic ants charming audiences and critics alike. 1998’s A Bug’s Life, Pixar’s second feature-length release, put the little creatures front and center. Following free-thinking ant Flik (voiced by David Foley), the film pursues the notion that magic is happening right under our noses, which Pixar embraced with their first feature, Toy Story. But in this case, that theme is writ smaller and wider, showing us civilizations lurking out of human sight.

Helmed by Toy Story director John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton (who would later take charge of such Pixar hits as WALL-E and Finding Nemo) and edited by Lee Unkrich (who would lead Toy Story 3 and Coco), A Bug’s Life has held up well over the last 20 years, even as the technological wonders of its computer-animation style have been surpassed. Just as with Toy Story, the film’s charm and emotion keep it relevant today, and something that both adults and children enjoy.

However, the movie also shares many of the problems of early Pixar films—problems that may have seemed slight at the time but in retrospect are more glaring. While Pixar has certainly addressed some of these problematic issues, other studios have not. Pixar has continued to lead the way in animation technology, and as such the occasionally clunky rendering in early films has become silky, and the artistic vision of the worlds they create have become more varied, more nuanced and less generic. Its reliance on cuteness has shifted as well, giving us realer, grittier characters and worlds in later films.

Yet certain problems persist. Take Flik, an ant what’s pale blue rather than common insect coloring such as black, red or brown. The film’s leading lady, ant princess Atta (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus), is pink. This might not have been a problem if weren’t for DreamWorks’ similar competing project Antz, which came out a month before A Bug’s Life and featured brown ants. While Toy Story’s toys were all pretty white, or at least sounded white, the whitewashing of the natural world is harder to ignore. This, at least, is something that Pixar has made some (very slow) progress with in recent years, most notably with 2017’s Coco, but they need to do a lot better.

And then, when looking at the names in the production teams, there are still few, if any, women in leadership roles with Pixar movies. While this was in the news recently as Lasseter was forced to step down from his leadership role at Pixar due to inappropriate contact with women, it still doesn’t seem to have resulted in many changes in terms of who gets to tell the stories at Pixar. And that’s a problem that goes all the way back to early films like A Bug’s Life.

While it may be a bit rough around the edges when compared to recent work by Pixar and by competitors in the field, the charm of Flik and his co-adventures is still so winning that A Bug’s Life still delights. But the message that A Bug’s Life sends the most forcefully now, 20 years on, is how white and how male Pixar’s vision of not only our world but even magical and minute worlds is. This is something they’ve made slow progress on, but that slow progress should have taken six months, not 20 years. Here’s hoping that, 20 years from now, the advancements Pixar has made in terms of technology and storytelling will be matched by advancing representation on screen and off.

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