Bugs, not Antz

I have, if I do say so myself, a very good memory for things such as films that I’ve seen and books that I’ve read. I can forget many things just like anyone else, but I do have a freakishly good memory in other areas and for some reason can always remember page numbers of things I’ve looked up days after the event (as super powers go, this is singularly useless.)

It does mean that I find it hard to re-read books, and especially any crime novels with a whodunnit element, since I remember them too clearly. And I don’t rewatch films very often either, as I touched upon in a blog post last year. It’s fair to say that I know which films I’ve watched over the years, basically.

Occasionally I can get surprised: when I watched Dr No on DVD about five years ago, I got to a point where I realised that, while whole chunks were familiar from their endless showing on a massive number of clip shows over the years, there were equally some rather large sections that I had no recollection of at all. It was either that it had been so long since I’d sat down and watched the film properly rather than have it on in the background, or else I’d only ever seen the famous vintage clips.

I could say the same about The Wizard of Oz, although here I knew full well that I’d never taken the opportunity of its interminable showings on TV over Christmas and Easter holidays of my youth to actually watch it, and it was just once again the eternally recycled famous scenes that I knew. It was nice to sit down with a wonderfully digitally remastered DVD of that a couple of years back and finally assemble all the pieces in the right order; and it was rather good, I freely admit after all those years of holding out.

But very rarely do I get to a film that I am utterly sure I’ve seen before and yet which I start to have an odd feeling when I can’t seem to recall it very well. Such was the case with A Bug’s Life, a very early Pixar outing that is now some 12 or 13 years old. I’d always believed I’d seen it but been rather underwhelmed by it and that it wasn’t a patch on Pixar’s later, greater work, and as such wasn’t in any particular rush to see it again.

But recently something started nagging at the back of my brain: every time I tried to remember the film, I found that I was sliding into thinking about Antz instead. That was another computer-animated film that came out at the same time, about an ant colony: rather than Pixar, it was from their arch rival DreamWorks Animation and there was all sorts of rows about how DreamWorks had managed to come up with such a similar-themed CGI film and crash it out just months ahead of Pixar’s eagerly-awaited follow-up to the first Toy Story as a spoiler. It was the animated version of the row that sprang up around the same time around near-concurrent releases of meteorite disaster movies Armageddon from Touchstone, and Paramount and DreamWorks’ Deep Impact.

I’ve definitely seen Antz, and remember it reasonably well. I didn’t take to it: the animation was okay but nothing special and a little “smeary”, while the central character was based on and voiced by Woody Allen and I’m afraid I’m not much of an Allen fan. His character’s sidekick was a soldier ant voiced by Sylvester Stallone, and again that’s not a performer who has me queuing up to see his films (and is a curious choice for a voice artist in any case, I would have thought!) All in all I found it fine, rather middling, very forgettable – the best part being definitely Gene Hackman’s delightfully mad soldier ant general.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised I couldn’t remember a single thing about the Pixar version. It seemed to be sitting in some sort of “blind spot” in my mind, to the extent that even the film’s release on Blu-ray had managed to pass me by completely unnoticed – and I have a standing order to get every Pixar film as soon as they’re available in high-def, such is the quality of the studio’s Blu-ray remasterings.

This latter oversight was quickly put to rights and the Blu-ray obtained and quickly booted up. I figured I’d get maybe ten minutes in before my memory was rebooted and I would be able to recall the film properly, since I was still sure that I had seen it a decade or so ago. I pressed play, and waited for the key scenes and characters to jog my memory …

You’ve guessed, I’m sure, that the memory reboot never happened. Just a dawning realisation that I had never seen the film at all, never even seen clips or screengrabs from it, because it was all completely unknown to me. My recollection had been totally crosswired, so that any enquiries to the neurological databank about A Bug’s Life had been seamlessly transferred onto the thoughts and memories about Antz instead.

And as is so often the case, Pixar’s offering is light years ahead of the competition, so the film that I thought was a mediocre damp squib on the studio’s roll call was revealed instead as another shining gem of peerless entertainment. Okay, it’s not in the league of Pixar’s most recent films such as WALL-E or Up, but it certainly stands proudly alongside its contemporaries such as the original Toy Story: indeed, despite being a first viewing for me, the film’s age and charming innocence infused it with almost instant nostalgia.

What’s interesting is how fresh eyes on the 13-year-old film show how Pixar have moved on in that time. Back at the end of the 20th century, Pixar films largely took one Big Idea (toys coming to life when not played with; life from a bugs-eye view; everything being an automobile; the monster in the wardrobe; a father fish searching for his son) combined with an ensemble of likeable characters. Where recent Pixar films have been totally original, A Bug’s Life is unashamedly a retelling of The Magnificent Seven (or The Seven Samurai if you prefer) and has little depth beyond this; similarly Cars is often taken to be a too-literal CGI version of the likes of Doc Hollywood with no extra twists and turns or depth.

You could also make the case that the technology has moved on and hence the animation is understandably not as top-quality as more recent outings, but I’d have to take issue with that. On the Blu-ray release at least, the quality of the picture was literally dazzling. I was awe-struck by the vibrant colour and the eye-searing razor-sharp detail. Moreover, the art direction of the film allowed it access to an array of locations, from the green, green grass of home to the arid desert wastes and on to the squalid insect “city”; the stunning underground setting of the ant colony lit by bio-luminescence; and in a particularly beautiful and haunting scene, the mists of early morning.

It is all utterly gorgeous and every bit as good as every other Pixar film. When it comes to high definition, truly Blu-ray is Pixar’s own format – they just let other, lesser filmmakers use it when they’re off doing something else. If you buy nothing else in high definition, make sure you get every single Pixar film if you want your Blu-ray player to love you.

So finally, having watched A Bug’s Life and no longer confusing it with the entirely average Antz, where would I place it in the Pixar firmament? Well it’s definitely one of the more “kid” entries, full of fun and life and less artistically ambitious than the more recent Oscar-nominated films, but that’s not a criticism. It’s on a level with the first Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Cars – although for my money, the formula was clearly reaching the end of the road by the time Cars came along and the company correctly recognised that it had to change up a gear which is why Cars is generally seen as one of the one of Pixar’s misfires (hope you’re liking all these car-metaphors) and why the more inventive, original and multi-layered films such as Monsters, Inc. and The Incredibles were now pointing the way forward.

But I’d certainly watch it again – and probably will, pretty soon, simply because I spent most of the first viewing going “I’ll remember it in a minute … I will … I’ll remember it … Oh. No I won’t” and now I’d just like to watch it properly without my brain supplying that back chatter.


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