A BUG’S LIFE (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

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Directed by: John Lasseter

Written by: Andrew Stanton, Donald McEnery & Bob Shaw

Voices of: Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Hayden Panettiere, Phyllis Diller, Richard Kind, David Hyde Pierce, Joe Ranft, Denis Leary, Madeline Kahn, Jonathan Harris, Bonnie Hunt & John Ratzenberger

Since its inception in the mid-90’s, Pixar has been entertaining both adults and children in equal measure. They’ve produced some of the best family films of all time and simply dazzled us with beautiful visuals along the way. So it’s a bit disheartening that their sophomore effort feels like a mixed bag when one looks back on it today. There are very good theories for why A BUG’S LIFE isn’t up to the quality that we have come to expect from Pixar, but the biggest (and most plausible) of which is that the studio rushed the film’s production in order to compete with DreamWorks (who released ANTZ that very same year). This is actually one of those rare cases where DreamWorks knockoff beat Disney to the punch with an idea and executed it slightly better. A BUG’S LIFE isn’t bad, but it’s just an okay flick. This is colorful, harmless fun that will entertain far more kids than parents.

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Loosely based on Aesop’s ANT AND THE GRASSHOPPER, A BUG’S LIFE follows Flick. He’s an outcast inventor who’s become an annoyance to his ant colony. After accidentally ruining the food offering left for a band of evil grasshoppers, led by the intimidating Hopper (voiced wonderfully by Kevin Spacey), Flick asks to leave the colony in order to find warrior bugs to defeat Hopper’s gang. Thinking that this idea will buy the colony some time with Flick out of the picture, Princess Atta decides to grant his request. Lo and behold, Flick returns with a band of circus bugs mistaken for “warriors.” The circus bugs soon discover the truth and try to concoct a plan to defeat Hopper as well as keep Flick’s mistake under wraps.

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A BUG’S LIFE is very by-the-numbers in terms of the story. You pretty much know how everything is going to play out as soon as Flick returns home with the circus bugs. While other Pixar films have shaken up their plots into something far more noteworthy and creative, A BUG’S LIFE feels simple and straight-forward. This is especially a disappointment when you consider that Pixar was just coming off of TOY STORY. The animation is astounding to look at though. This is a beautiful film where textures and all sorts of insects are brought to colorful life. The scenes in which Flick ventures into the bug city stand out as some of the best in the entire film. It should also be noted that A BUG’S LIFE turns something as innocent and sweet as a little bird into a beast that you could easily compare to the T-Rex from JURASSIC PARK. Those qualities are very well done.

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Science geeks will have their funny bone constantly tickled with bug-related puns and jokes throughout. These bits include flies complaining about their short life cycles, a flea being insulting by the term “parasite” and a mosquito drinking a drop of blood (Bloody Mary, O positive) at an insect bar. These are just a few of the many (arguably, too many) pun-heavy bits of dialogue that you can find in this film. These jokes really come out of nowhere and don’t have much to do with our main characters (save for a caterpillar who desperately wants to become a butterfly), but they provide a couple of chuckles. The characters of Flick and Princess Atta simply aren’t that interesting though. In fact, I’d go as far to say that none of the ants are very good characters. This is slightly compensated by Hopper being a great villain as well as the circus bugs receiving a majority of solid laughs.

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Overall, A BUG’S LIFE is okay. This is a colorful and, at times, funny Pixar adventure that mostly sticks by a well-worn by-the-numbers sort of plot. Out of all of the films in Disney and Pixar’s catalogue, I can’t imagine that many people would list this as their favorite or anywhere near the pillar of excellence they’ve become known for. There are a few good laughs to be had and beautiful visuals to see, but a predictable plot and bland characters keep this one from not being as nearly as good as it might have been if more production time were spent on it (and not rushing to release it in the same window as ANTZ). It’s okay, but winds up one of the lesser Pixar movies as a whole.

Grade: C+

PLANES (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some mild Action and Rude Humor

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Directed by: Klay Hall

Written by: Jeffrey M. Howard

Voices of: Dane Cook, Stacey Keach, Danny Mann, Priyanka Chopra, Brad Garrett, Teri Hatcher, Cedric The Entertainer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Roger Craig Smith, Gabriel Iglesias, John Cleese, Carlos Alazraqui, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards & Sinbad

From above the world of CARS. That’s the tagline front and center on the poster of PLANES. It’s a bold-faced marketing trick that suckered enough of the unsuspecting public to believe that this film is actually Pixar creation. This is not true. PLANES is from Disney and the reason they could even use the CARS world is because the company owns Pixar. If it sounds like I’m bitter, it’s because I am. There weren’t any preconceived notions about this one. If anything, there may have been a lingering sense of hope that it might be a fun little piece of family entertainment. I was so very wrong and am firing both barrels at this thing, Let me lay down the premise for you…

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Dusty Crophopper is a plane dreaming of competing in aerial races. His role as a cropduster keeps him in the same boring routine day after day. Despite his low-class job, Dusty does go to a qualifying tournament for the prestigious Wings Across The World race. Due to a technicality, Dusty does qualify for the global race. There’s a quirky twist though. Dusty is afraid of heights (a plane afraid of heights, I’d dare call that idea wacky), so begins training under a war veteran named Skipper. Of course, his fierce competitors don’t take too kindly to a lowly farm plane competing with the likes of them. Dusty must overcome his fears, beat his rivals, and make some new friends to win this race.

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One might call PLANES an easy target for criticism, because it was intended for children. However, I will use my favorite rebuttal when reviewing films like this. Good family entertainment is entertaining for the whole family! Using the excuse of “Well, the kids liked it. Wasn’t that the point?” is not a valid point. Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, and even Sony Animation all have their fair share of hits and misses, but the hits go on to become memorable classics to be cherished because they were absolutely GOOD films. I’m not intentionally searching out direct-to-video kiddie films to bash on. I know those are dinky little cartoons, but PLANES was released theatrically from a studio well-known for delivering fantastic entertainment. I was at the very least expecting something serviceable, but PLANES fails in every single respect.

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There’s a big difference between crude humor and adult humor. PLANES continually mistakes the former for the latter. The film is full of some sexual humor (planes remarking on the back propellers of female planes). Pop culture references that already seem dated are sprinkled in. There is a poop joke thrown in at the end for good measure and even a little offensive religious humor. This is found in the offensively stereotypical character of a plane from India that believes in recycling (instead of reincarnation, get it?) and finds tractors (instead of cows) sacred. Plenty of children’s entertainment (plenty from Disney) have showcased intelligent jokes thrown into their sweet tales of overcoming incredible odds and learning what’s truly important in life. PLANES isn’t one of these films.

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Dane Cook provides the voice of Dusty Crophopper and that alone speaks volumes to this films quality. The man can act (e.g. MR. BROOKS), but Cook sounds like he’s just reading lines with a quick paycheck being waved in front of him. In fact, that’s possibly how the recording sessions went. Other washed up comedians populate the side characters, including Gabriel Iglesias and Sinbad. Everybody speaks as if they’re baby-talking the characters for the kids. Fun fact is that this film was originally intended for a direct-to-video release. It was produced by the DisneyToon Studios portion of Disney. DisneyToon has been responsible for every terrible sequel Disney has produced, along with all those cheap-looking CGI films. The animation of PLANES looks about on the same level as these bad films. This more than deserved to make a quick buck on the home video market. It’s insulting and underhanded that Disney put this abomination out in nationwide theatrical release.

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Surprisingly, PLANES also never seems to nail precisely what kind of tone it want to use. It’s overly cutesy and familiar, but there’s also a bit of a misguided serious edge in parts. A perfect example of this is a war flashback that comes out of nowhere and involves other planes being blown up and killed. It takes a skillful hand to balance wonderment and a darker side. THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER is a good example of this done right. On the other hand, PLANES is a film that babies its audience for a majority of the film. It makes things a bit startling when the story decides to launch the viewer into this impromptu scene of destruction that feels so radically out-of-place, it’s almost shocking.

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The tagline of PLANES shouldn’t read “From above the world of CARS.” It should say “From the director of TINKERBELL AND THE LOST TREASURE and the studio line that gave you all those terrible direct-to-video sequels to beloved classics, comes PLANES. This film was originally slated for a direct-to-DVD release but somehow got put into theaters everywhere.” I also have written what should be the tagline for the upcoming sequel “The first one made money and your kids will drag you to see this one too. See you during next few years for BOATS and TRAINS.” Enough said!

Grade: F

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