That Moment In ‘A Bug’s Life’ (1998): Rescuing Dot
An ant with good intentions causes nothing but trouble. When he accidentally destroys a food supply meant for grasshoppers, he needs to redeem himself in front of the princess and the colony. He has a plan, but some plans don’t quite work the way they are meant to. It’s A Bug’s Life.
The follow-up to Pixar’s hugely popular computer-animated film Toy Story, this hapless ant’s adventure is based on the classic Aesop fable The Ant and the Grasshopper. Boasting a talented cast of mostly television actors for voice work, the story focuses on a place called Ant Island, where a busy colony of purple (girls) and blue (boys) ants work to store a supply of food for a tyrannical grasshopper named Hopper (Kevin Spacey). He and his rebel crew are arriving soon, but an inventive, over-zealous ant named Flik (David Foley), knocks over the food bin into the river below. This does not go over well.
The queen-in-training, Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), along with the rest of the colony panic. Flik, getting shunned by his actions, suggests he go to the big city to recruit helper bugs to come and defend the ants. Thinking it’s a good way to rid the place of Flik, the council, led by Atta, agrees. He goes and finds a strange mix of larger bugs and persuades them to come back with him, not knowing that they are actually only circus performers. What could go wrong?
Directed by John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton, A Bug’s Life is a well-made children’s story that falls a little doesn’t quite hit the high marks of Pixar’s first, but is nonetheless, a great achievement. While the animation is very good, bright and colorful, it lacks the heart of Toy Story, with a darker story and a more heavy-handed message. That said, the characters are fun and Pixar does a great job bringing the world to life. It’s a joy to admire the little details. As the message here is a common one, about believing in oneself, let’s take a closer look at one moment where circus performers learn they are more than who they think.
The former members of P.T. Flea’s (John Ratzenberger) Circus were all fired for ineptitude and are drowning their sorrows in a seedy dive when Flik walks in. So too does a trio of houseflies who are looking for a fight, most especially with Francis (Denis Leary), a short-tempered ladybug who, naturally, is often mistaken to be a female. Francis and the others, to get out of a squabble, launch into a thespian performance, pretending to be warriors, which fools the flies and Flick. In the chaos that follows, they emerge like victors.
Thinking Flick is a talent scout, the circus bugs agree to follow Flik back to his village for what they think is dinner theater. It’s not. Flik believes he found the best fighter bugs in the land and will earn back the colony (and Atta’s) love. But when the bugs arrive, and after a big celebration, realize why they are really there, they decide to bolt, though only Flik knows why. He chases after them in desperation.
They straight-up refuse to fight grasshoppers, no matter how hard Flik pleads. That’s the reputation Hopper has. The fleeing bugs head for the embankment, high above the parched and dried riverbed. The bugs that can fly, take hold of those that can’t and take off, leaving Ant Island behind. Or so they think. Flik, persistent as ever, latches on, still begging for help.
Across the way, they finally shake him off in the tall grass, only to learn that there is a bird’s nest right in front of them. And momma bird is hungry. In panic, they all run back to the riverbed. But that’s not all that’s happening. Following them is Dot (Hayden Panettiere), Princess Atta’s much younger sister. She looks up to Flik and jumped on a dandelion seed to float after him (something she saw him do earlier).
Now she is heading for them in the air and they are racing back to Ant Island on the ground with the bird in fast pursuit. Meanwhile, Princess Atta, the Queen (Phyllis Diller), the elders, and soon most of the colony begin to assemble on the cliff’s edge. They are still unaware that the bugs are from the circus. All they know is that they need heroes. They’re about to get some.
As Flik and the ‘warrior’ bugs make their way along the ground, the bird changes direction and heads for Dot, who drops from her perch just as the bird’s beak bites her floating seed. Right under her is Francis, who is able to (mostly) catch Dot, the two falling into a dried mud patch on the riverbed, far enough out of reach so that the bird can’t eat them. In the process, Francis gets bonked on the head with a stone and has one leg pinned under a rock.
Trapped as the bright orange bird struggles to catch a meal, the others look on in horror. They need a plan to distract the feathery monster and free their friends. Flik has an idea. Using Slim (David Hyde Pierce) the walkingstick bug as a mount and Heimlich (Joe Ranft), a rotund, brightly-colored caterpillar as bait, they set a trap.
Meanwhile, Flik, Rosie (Bonnie Hunt), a black-widow spider, Dim (Brad Garrett), a rhino beetle, Manny (Jonathan Harris), a praying mantis, and Tuck and Roll (Mike McShane), a pair of pill bugs, combine their abilities and mount a rescue of Dot and Francis.
The bird heads for Heimlich. It’s going exactly as planned. But Heimlich gets stuck and just as it looks like he’s about to be supper, in swoops the last of the circus bugs, Gypsy (Madeline Kahn), a gorgeous moth with ‘eye spots’ markings. She momentarily frightens the predator when she jumps in front of it and spreads her wings. Bam!
Behind them, the rescue is complete and the bugs are making a break for Ant Island, though not without some issues. Francis has woken, and in a panic flips over and knocks Flick and Dot out of the web basket Rosie made with her web. Now, suspended like a vertical shish kabob, they are a perfect target for the hungry and persistent bird.
They race forward, surely doomed, but just in time, they make it to the top of the cliff and into the safety of a thorny shrub. The bird, frustrated by it all, flutters away. Breathless and unbelieving, the bugs are surprised to be alive. Better yet, in the clearing below, the thunderous roar of applause rises to their ears. The warrior bugs are heroes.
The origin of the unexpected hero trope in film most likely dates back to the days of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. A conflict or danger is presented and by actions of necessity (or accident), a person (or persons) whom both themselves and the audience believe incapable of being great defy that expectation. So it is with the circus bugs and Flik. As performers, they often failed because they were individuals, never working together. In this moment, as the need presented itself, (and most importantly) under the direction of Flik, they worked in unison to solve a problem that is even worse than the one they were hired for. The viewer also is given evidence that in the finale, the ‘good guys’ are at least capable of outwitting or defeating the antagonist, an essential element in the genre’s structure.
The entire scene is the impetus for how the ant’s will confront Hopper. In it are clues for the coming strategy and defense so that when it all comes together, we already know what to look for. The bird is now firmly established as the dominate predator, so even in its manufactured form, it still has weight. Without this moment, the ending would have for less impact for two reasons: A) the bird’s ferocity would be in question and B) the circus bugs’ teamwork would not be earned. With this sequence in place, we witness Flik’s shift from a bumbling troublemaker (with admittedly good ideas) to a quick-thinking leader, able to see and develop effective plans. Flik’s status also changes, and while he retains his humble outlook and preternatural positive attitude, he is drawn closer to the princess and to the colony as a contributing member.
John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton
John Lasseter (original story by), Andrew Stanton(original story by)
Kevin Spacey, Dave Foley, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Hayden Panettiere, Phyllis Diller, Richard Kind, David Hyde Pierce, Denis Leary, Jonathan Harris, Madeline Kahn