Cinema: Bugs Funny

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A colony of peaceful, industrious little creatures is ripped off by marauders from afar. Ants and grasshoppers. That too. But in conspiratorial hindsight one might see A Bug's Life, the first feature from John Lasseter and his Pixar whizzes since their 1995 computer-generated hit Toy Story, as the company's rearview metaphor for its battle with DreamWorks' Antz. That similar computer-animated cartoon was conceived after the Pixar pic but released before it. It's bug-eat-bug in Hollywood's animation wars.

Is there room for two? Yes, when the "second" movie is as rich and rewarding as A Bug's Life. Its design work is so stellar--a wide-screen Eden of leaves and labyrinths populated by dozens of ugly, buggy, cuddly cutups--that it makes the DreamWorks film seem, by comparison, like radio. If that movie was Ant-Z, this one is Ant-A.

The story has the ants in servitude to Hopper (voiced by Kevin Spacey) and his band of gangster grasshoppers, who fly in each year to receive their tribute of vittles. Hopper is a thug among bugs, and no ant dares stand up to him. But one little fellow, Flik (Dave Foley), a misfit with big ideas, decides to venture outside the colony and hire some tough guys to fight the grasshoppers. All right, the new hired guns are actually a troupe of circus performers with prima-donna dispositions and tender carapaces. But what Hopper doesn't know can't hurt the ants. Can it?

The fable of the grinds vs. the goons, played out daily in suburban schoolyards, gets sophisticated tweaks from Lasseter, co-director Andrew Stanton and their colleagues. The movie teems with political infighting, with carnage and compromise, at the grass-roots level--Michael Collins meets Microcosmos. Indeed, for the first half hour or so, A Bug's Life is so dense with characters and illustrative detail that it nearly chokes on its own banquet. The filmmakers encourage you to wander through the glamorous terrain of their imaginations as if the picture were a product reel for 21st century cinema.

But as Walt Disney knew, animation is more than sublime trickery; the word means giving life. With a different kind of mouse, Lasseter does just that as his film finds its heat and heart. The plot matures handsomely; the characters neatly converge and combust; the gags pay off with emotional resonance. And at the end, the movie tops itself with comic outtakes, undoubtedly the funniest finale of any cartoon feature. Antz may have amused viewers with its sidewise wit, but as a comprehensive vision of computerized moviemaking, Pixar's dream works. And when A Bug's Life hits its stride, it's antastic.

--By Richard Corliss