16/05/2017

A Bug's Life - The Collective Individual: How Family Movies Work

Thoughts On: A Bug's Life (1998)


Flik, an eccentric and inventive ant, attempts to save the colony he belongs to by finding warrior bugs to fend of the oppressive grasshoppers that threaten them.


A Bug's Life is not only one of Pixar's most underrated films, but also one if their most impressive. I've never understood why it fell so low on many peoples' lists, averaging just above the likes of Cars and Monsters University. Some of this may stem from the fact that it followed the astounding Toy Story, and some of this may come from the release of Antz a few months beforehand (a good video on this topic can be found here). However, judged holistically, A Bug's Life has a subtle, not entirely unique, yet undeniably strong narrative, compelling characters and some beautiful aesthetics that are, in my opinion, only out-done by the likes of Finding Nemo whilst rivalling those captured in WALL-E. And the aesthetics are what make this film primarily so impressive. Looking back at this almost 20-year-old film, you will find a mesmerising miniature perspective captured by Lasseter and his team, one that was, in its time, pretty revolutionary. If you only look at the technological jump between Toy Story and A Bug's Life, this is strikingly obvious...



In fact, A Bug's Life is a huge jump ahead, both in terms of scope and technological details of lighting and textures, on Pixar's behalf. What they do fail to capture, however, is the emotional poignancy of the Toy Story premise. But, there are incredibly few narratives out there that you, just by reading their synopsis, can get a sense of how emotionally impactful they'll be. This is true of all three Toy Story films; tell kids and adults alike about childhoods and lost toys and you're likely to get a few of them blubbering. Nonetheless, A Bug's Life takes the themes of community and friendship that were featured in Toy Story and really blows them up into something more intelligent, rather than emotionally impactful. And this is a hugely redeeming factor of the story. However, before getting into this, it has to quickly be said that the score for this movie is tremendous, as are the voice performances - especially that of Kevin Spacey as Hopper. Both of these produce a joyous, sometimes menacing, atmosphere that locks you into the narrative entirely.

But, let us now take a closer look at the story of A Bug's Life. As mentioned, this narrative is centred on themes of friendship and community - as in Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, Inside Out, WALL-E - in short, basically all of Pixar's feature length films. The reason why this is the paradigm of Pixar's films is simply because it is the way that almost all family films are constructed. As the title, 'family film', suggests, movies that fit into this genre or class must appeal to a wide audience made up of many different individuals. Whilst the best way you may talk to teens is to depict rebellion, fun, adventure and discovery, this isn't really the best way to talk to adults as they often seek out more mature, niche themes. However, all of these themes - rebellion, fun, adventure and discovery - can appeal to anyone if angled right. With a teen movie, you'd often set up the conflict to be in spite of the protagonist with them having to actively seek out fun and adventure as an act of rebellion, haphazardly discovering new things along the way. A more family orientated film, however, would include more perspectives and differing shades of conflict. In such, the film would not just be about a teen rebelling, instead a whole group somehow coming together and persevering. And it's through this that there can be a debate of conflicts had. For example, in A Bug's Life, Flik wants to escape and prove himself in the bigger world - just as many protagonists in innumerable family films do. However, he has to bring this experience back with him to the ant colony and continue to learn. And such allows the debate between individual rebellion and a collective perseverance to be engaged.

The fact that this is so starkly explored in A Bug's Life is what makes the narrative somewhat remarkable in comparison to the many other Pixar films that feature this paradigm. In such, a film like Finding Nemo, Brave or Toy Story is about a protagonist going out into the wider world - often with a person at their side - before returning to their smaller world in the end with lessons learned. This focuses the narrative of these films on the growth of individuals as they are separated from their core group, instead of inducing a debate across a whole group of people in the initial smaller world of the narrative. But, whilst this isn't an inherently bad thing, the theme of family and collectiveness isn't so much explored in these films, rather, themes of friendship and individuality are. Again, this isn't a bad thing. But, the fact that A Bug's Life takes these themes and explores them in a different light makes it quite an interesting study into a wider paradigm of Pixar and family films. In such, A Bug's Life ultimately explores the relationship between the collective and the individual.

As said, this subject is one that has been widely explored in many stories and in many different forms. And the climax of many of these films often sees a large group rise up against their oppressors - as the ants do against the grasshoppers in this narrative. This is paradigm particularly prevalent in any movie featuring some kind of battle, revolution or war. However, the film that comes to mind as the most blatant expression of this trope has to be A Bug's Life. In such, this narrative utilises such a trope to point out the absurdity of a ruling minority that exists in the real world. However, despite the absurdity of such an idea, this is a state of normalcy throughout the world; despite notions of democracy, socialism and communism, we all exist somewhere in a triangular hierarchy with very few at the top of things. The reason why this is the case must come down to the fact that there is an inner conflict in all people between surviving as a group and surviving as an individual. In such, almost all people want to life/don't want to die. This is a self-centric urge within us all, but it extends to others; we do not want to see those close to us die and we do not want to see all of humanity blip out of existence around us. This is all because we need others so that we may live our lives. After all, how could I have typed this essay without a huge company manufacturing my computer for me? How could I have eaten this morning without hundreds, if not thousands, of people working to produce the milk and cereal that went into my bowl? What this says is that there is an incredibly strong bond between motivations for all people to live collectively and individually. However, these things are not one and the same.

A film I saw recently was A Bride For Rip Van Winkle - which also explores the themes we are discussing now. And, to delve into minor spoilers, one of the revelations a character reveals in this narrative is that she likes to buy things and spend extraordinary amounts of money because she can't bear to live in a world were she has to accept how kind people are around her. This is a pretty profound notion and a complex commentary on an idea of money, exchange and, in a certain sense, capitalism. We like to isolate ourselves within a crowd, to a certain degree, so that we don't disappear into, or become entirely reliant, on it. And this is the illusion we conjure with money. The metal, paper and digital figures that we all exchange daily mean, in a certain sense, nothing. And if you choose to see them as such, if you choose to take money out of the equation of me eating cereal this morning, things become overwhelmingly utopian. Out of some unneeded kindness, hundreds or thousands of people worked to provide me with a meal that I didn't even savour or enjoy that much as I ate it - which is pretty unnerving. But, because I claim ownership over that bowl of cereal, because everyone exchanges money, there is no weight of the collective on my back; because I paid for that bowl of cereal, suddenly I am somehow providing for myself.

This is the tension that is poignantly explored in A Bride For Rip Van Winkle, but also in A Bug's Life - just from a different angle. Because the Grasshoppers intimidate the ants into giving them food, they in turn think that they are the top of the food chain. The reality is, they can not only be eaten by birds, but that they wouldn't be alive without the ants providing their food. The commentary made by the ants rising up against the Grasshoppers is then that there is an overriding idea of a collective that can easily quash a tyrannical individual; money and hierarchy is just an illusion we construct and hold on to. However, is this really the case?

The fact is: no, not really. Flik essentially destroys Hopper. And I don't mean this in that he lured him toward the bird (who you could then say actually killed Hopper). Flik destroys Hopper by uniting the colony against him. This says that the collective doesn't really destroy the individual, instead, one individual destroys another with the collective at their back. As a result, the means that we represent this power in society (through hierarchy and money) are seemingly valid. And you can see that this paradigm of individual leaders exists both the real world and across many family films; it only takes one. In the real world, this one leading figure may be a Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Muhammad, Gandhi, Hitler or a Lincoln. All of these figures united whole nations and radically changed the world, and their names ring through the annals of history all because of this tension between the collective and the individual; they stood up and individually represented the collective. This says that collectives need some kind of triangular hierarchy because deadly risk is always an element changing the world. But, if there is one courageous person willing to die for a cause, others will often follow. This is the Spartacus effect. However, it mustn't be forgotten that, without the real Spartacus standing up first, this phenomena doesn't exist.

This is what we see in A Bug's Life, and the reason why I chose this film to discuss such a paradigm is that it says a lot about ourselves through the guise of the family film. As mentioned, almost all family movies have this conflict between collective and individual motivations, and so often resolve themselves with individuals bringing a collective together. We then seem to be so drawn to these movies as they discuss and emotionally appeal to our own existential conflicts between living as an individual person, but also as a cog in a wider system. These movies that we then watch with our parents, children, brothers, sisters and other loved ones become a currency much like money. Just as money smooths out and simplifies the exchange of goods and favours, family movies act as some kind of dampener of collective living. In such, instead of having to stand before your entire family and entertain them with stories and your intellect, you can all sit back and let the hundreds of employees at Pixar do it for you.

A question this leaves us all is, is this right? Should money be done away with? Should Pixar movies? Instead of throwing money at our 'problems' like Jordan Belfort in Wolf Of Wall Street (however minute), should we learn to say thank you and be more appreciative? Instead of shutting the kids up for 80 minutes with a Pixar movie, should we sit them down and talk to them ourselves? My position falls somewhere between the two extremes. Money introduces a lot of order into the world that I wouldn't want to see gone, but maybe we are a little too obsessed with ideas of individuality and making it on our own in life (when such a thing is basically impossible). And Pixar movies aren't something we need to deprive children of, but a little more care and attention wouldn't go amiss.

Before we end, it then has to be said that A Bug's Life is a hugely remarkable archetype of the family film that directly speaks to its thematic paradigms - which maybe suggest that this movie needs a bit more recognition. However, I'll now turn things over to you. What are your thoughts on all we've covered today? Is there more to be said about the topics we've picked up on?

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