Forgive yourself for thinking you've seen A Bug's Life somewhere before. A computer-generated ant movie. An accident-prone hero who doesn't quite fit in. A rebellious princess in peril. An insect evil-doer with a comedy henchman. Sound familiar? DreamWorks' Antz unpeeled a similar micro-fable three months ago, having hustled its CG fairy-story through production to beat Pixar's ant-flick into cinemas. Yet, despite the speedy turnaround, Antz was excellent. How does the latest project from the Toy Story team stand up against it?
Although the themes (individuality, redemption, loyalty) are undeniably similar, the two are very different in style and approach. Antz is more adult and clever, while A Bug's Life has a pre-teen cuteness and is pitched squarely at the family. Antzuses movie star voiceovers, A Bug's Life plunders the jabber of TV sitcom regulars. And while Antz is often spectacular and astonishing to gaze at, A Bug's Life is arguably more beautiful, full of gloriously translucent leaves, glistening exo-skeletons and iridescent butterfly wings. Building on the detail and complexity that was a hallmark of Toy Story, Pixar's flawless recreation of light and shadow, facial expressions and natural landscaping is a joy to behold.
The main strength of A Bug's Life is that Pixar has again created a miniature world which could never exist in a live-action movie. Admittedly, the story takes a while to gain momentum, but after the mandatory scene-setting and character introductions, A Bug's Life soon becomes a satisfying, very funny cartoon.
It has its inventive moments: Flik creates a telescope by using a rolled-up leaf, with a water droplet for the lens. It has its in-jokes ("It's a bug-eat-bug world, one of those Circle Of Life things"). It also has a rush of hugely effective insect gaggery: buzzing flies ordering a poo platter in a bar; a down-and-out bug on a street corner holding a sign that says: "Kid pulled my wings off".
Taking full advantage of (but rarely stretching) the digital technology, A Bug's Life finally hits speed when the imperfect hero discovers PT Flea's troupe of circus bugs - less a Magnificent Seven, more a Bugnificent Eight. David Hyde Pierce's stick insect (wants to be a clown, is always cast as a stick), Joe Ranft's bloated Bavarian caterpillar Heimlich and Denis Leary's male ladybird nab most of the screentime, while a rhino beetle, a butterfly, a spider, two woodlice (grunts courtesy of comic Mike McShane) and a praying mantis (voiced by Lost In Space's original Dr Smith, Jonathan Harris) round off the good guys. Kevin Spacey, meanwhile, provides the calculated menace behind the CG carapace of bad-guy Hopper.
A Bug's Life lacks the full crossover appeal of Toy Story, but it features some phenomenal moments. The sequence where the fragile ant colony is attacked by a bird is nothing less than sensational, while a simple rainstorm is transformed into a raging, destructive blitz of insect-crushing water bombs. Computer animation may now be less of a novelty, but Pixar's extraordinary fantasy (part Western, part gangster movie) still has the capacity to impress, blending visual and verbal slapstick with spectacular action and virtual stuntage.
So which is better - Antz or A Bug's Life? The answer isn't clear. Why not see them both? Antz has the edge where an adult audience is concerned (although kids may not get all the gags and political sideswipes), but as a family movie, A Bug's Life is a friendlier night out, hitting home on a multitude of levels for a range of age-groups. With something for everyone, Pixar's second feature is spirited, very funny and thoroughly charming. It starts slowly, and the characters can't quite shake their digital perfection, but with a rich tapestry of colours, energetic characterisation and magical attention to the tiniest details, A Bug's Life is a worthy successor to Toy Story.