Bee Movie serves a reminder of how little mass-market filmmaking has changed in the last 15 years, and how stultifying this state of affairs has become.
Following the sensational success of the sitcom that bore his name, Jerry Seinfeld hasn’t exactly been aggressive in pursuing new accomplishments. Settling comfortably into the languors of wealth and fame, he’s attached himself to only the most effortless of projects, making for a weird run of credits that appears to chart the flitting of his fancies across the last two decades. During this period, co-creator Larry David has continued to obsessively mine the rich lode of neuroticism that undergirded their collaboration, despite apparently loathing the process of producing television. Seinfeld, possessed with the breezy serenity of one whose reputation is secure, untroubled by any ambition toward doing much else of consequence, has expended the largest amount of effort on a show where he tools around in vintage cars and chats with his famous friends.
This apparent contentment is what makes Bee Movie such a mystery. A one-note joke extended over 90 minutes, it’s stretched so far past it’s breaking point that it reaches a bizarre rejuvenation, almost becoming funny again, but not quite making it. It aligns with the kind of blandly animated, snark-loaded, animal-focused product that’s been forgettably pumped out by studios for the last 20 years, yet it was also written, fronted and produced by one of the world’s most famous stand-up comedians. The whole thing appears to have taken a tremendous amount of effort to complete. The idea of this, a movie which culminates in an anthropomorphized bee ostensibly cuckolding his murderous human adversary (Patrick Warburton), being someone’s passion project is confounding to the point of absurdity.
Maybe the issue is that passion didn’t come into play at all. Bee Movie’s genesis might be traced back to the simple fact that, as of the mid ‘00s, Seinfeld was a father with a vested interest in entertaining his young kids. All the better if he could make some money and flex his industry muscle while doing so. Maybe he wanted to do something mildly creative, but blessedly accepted his obvious limitations as a thespian, opting for low-impact voice acting instead. Maybe he was still following the trail blazed by Woody Allen, who lent his trademark stammer to Antz nine years prior, adding a nervous spark to another uninspired showcase for half-baked humor and borderline-grotesque digital animation.
Whatever the case, Bee Movie stands out as a feeble attempt at satire which, if not quite an outright disaster, is mostly memorable for a curious mix of personalized eccentricity and focus-grouped mediocrity. Following the adventures of one Barry B. Benson (the first warning of the ceaseless barrage of bee puns to follow), it digs into everyday life in a modern Central Park beehive, which of course shares many amusing parallels with contemporary human existence. This softly sardonic posture is only the first of the movie’s many modes, with a first-act conflict in which the adventurous Barry finds himself restricted by the stringent rules of apian society. From here, the film fitfully experiments with one genre after another, transitioning from survival drama, to conspiracy thriller, budding interspecies rom-com, courtroom drama, and finally a low-stakes apocalyptic thriller, before pivoting to the inevitable ribbon-tying conclusion.
Bee Movie never inhabits any of these modes long enough for them to seem completely serious, but also doesn’t move quickly enough for the relentless genre-swapping to feel like overt parody. In the movie’s own parlance, it has all the ungainly energy of a bumblebee, doddering about from flower to flower, sucking up whatever nectar is available. This still falls within the usual parameters of the Dreamworks house style, which produces snide, star-studded adventures that use self-derision as a means of luring in adult viewers, assured that kids won’t notice the faux-risqué repartee whizzing above their heads. Thanks to a combination of this kneejerk sense of humor and a visual presentation relying on costly, cutting-edge animation, these films tend to age badly, which may explain why they keep getting made, new amendments needed to replace the outdated older models.
None of this makes Bee Movie sound remotely noteworthy, yet at least for this writer, the question of why it exists in the first place comes up again and again, buzzing around with the dozens of other quandaries it inspires. Why, for example, is it so intent on stirring up intimations of romance between Barry and a human woman (Renée Zellweger as Manhattan florist Vanessa), considering the logistical and social barriers preventing such a coupling? Why is so much time invested into hinting at the problems of the hive, only to toss this all aside in a flash, leaving curiously named sidekick Adam Flayman (Matthew Broderick) with nothing to do but fret haplessly on the margins? Why does everyone in the hive seem convinced that freeing other bees from human bondage will increase their own honey production? Why am I writing nearly 1100 words about Bee Movie?
The mere fact of being baffling enough to stand out has allowed Bee Movie to persevere in some sense, distinct from forgotten period artifacts like Over the Hedge and Monsters vs. Aliens. It’s likely this perplexing quality that’s made it such a favored reference point for Generation Z, employed as fodder for a steady succession of memes. A napkin doodle of an idea that somehow impelled its way through every step of the studio process, reaching fruition via a script cobbled together from cultural flotsam and groaner puns, it highlights the worst aspects of 21st-century film production, while also maintaining a rare spark of idiosyncratic badness.
At a time when so many movies are mediocre but few above a certain budget boundary are truly disastrous, it’s genuinely interesting to chart the bug-eyed fumblings of something as expensively ill-conceived as Bee Movie. As multiplexes roll out one indistinguishable franchise event after another, streaming services are simultaneously clogged with crap like this, a condition which allows a misbegotten piece of postdated product to bridge those two worlds.
If nothing else, it serves a reminder of how little mass-market filmmaking has changed in the last 15 years, and how stultifying this state of affairs has become. Robbed of the ability to engage with studio output on a cerebral level, inquisitive viewers are instead forced to cling to these unlikely instances of the system showing its hand, flubbed emblems for the collective folly of the entire idiotic endeavor.