As Toy Story was about to be released in 1995, the film generated a tremendous amount of positive “buzz” (pun intended). Pixar animator Andrew Stanton told author John Canemaker, for his book Two Guys Named Joe, that he began to think about what the studio would do next, recalling that he thought, “Oh my gosh! We may get to make another movie!”
Toy Story was, of course, a tremendous landmark hit, and the Pixar crew started having some brainstorming meetings. And from these meetings came the inspiration for their next feature.
“We started bouncing around potential ideas, some of which were jokes,” said John Lasseter in a 1998 interview. “Then, we hit upon something with the Aesop fable, The Grasshoppers and the Ants. We knew immediately that it was perfect for the medium because of the way the insects and their microscopic world are built.”
That fable was the launch point and eventually allowed Stanton and legendary story artist Joe Ranft to craft a story initially entitled Bugs, which ultimately became A Bug’s Life, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
The original version of the story centered on Red, an ant who was a ringleader looking for work for his circus. It was Stanton who, instead, shifted the focus to being an ant from a colony who mistakes circus performers for warriors and asks them to protect the colony from grasshoppers.
This eventually morphed into the plot of A Bug’s Life, (co-directed by Lasseter and Stanton) which centered on an ant, Flik, an inventive member of the colony on “Ant Island,” who accidentally spills the latest crop into the water with his latest invention, a grain harvester.
The villain, Hopper, and the grasshoppers force the ants to harvest food for them, and when there’s no food, thanks to Flik, Hopper demands twice as much grain to make up for the loss and threatens to return in several days to collect.
Instead, he finds a troupe of out-of-work circus performer bugs, who he mistakes for warriors. Flik brings them back, and both the circus bugs and Flik realize their mutual misunderstanding. However, the circus performers agree to stay and help the colony stand up to the grasshoppers when they return.
To bring the insect world to life, the Pixar artists watched “bug cam” footage (film from a small camera that showed blades of grass and flowers from an insect point of view). In A Bug’s Life, this led to a beautifully detailed world where the sun glinted through giant blades of grass, cracks in the dirt became canyons, and birds became Godzilla-like monsters.
The film was another tremendous technological leap for the quickly growing realm of computer animation, with 400 crowd scenes, and each character was animated with unique movement.
Like many 90s animated films, A Bug’s Life boasted a large and eclectic voice cast. Flik was voiced by Dave Foley from one of the decade’s hit sitcoms, NewsRadio, with Hopper’s voice provided by Kevin Spacey.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus was the ant colony’s Princess Atta, Phyllis Diller voiced the Queen, and Roddy McDowall as the ant thespian, Mr. Soil.
The circus troupe was the ringleader PT Flea (John Ratzenberger, Pixar’s “good luck charm”), Slim, the walking stick (David Hyde Pierce), Francis, a male ladybug (comedian Denis Leary), Manny, a magician praying mantis (Jonathan Harris, Dr. Smith on TV’s Lost in Space), his assistant Gypsy, a gypsy moth (Madeline Kahn), Dim, the rhinoceros beetle (Everybody Loves Raymond’s Brad Garrett), his trainer Rosie, the black widow spider (Bonnie Hunt) and acrobats Tuck and Roll, twin pill bugs (comedian Michael McShane).
Story artist Ranft provided the voice of Heimlich, another member of the circus troupe, the always-hungry caterpillar, who steals the movie. During the early days of production of A Bug’s Life, Ranft provided the voice for Heimlich on the film’s temporary soundtrack. The filmmakers searched for another “permanent” Heimlich, but none seemed to match Ranft’s performance, which led to him being cast as the character.
Lasseter remembered in 1998: “In creating the character Heimlich, Joe, who is just a very funny person, did this hilarious, high-pitched German-mama’s boy voice. We were just cracking up.”
Sadly, Ranft passed away in 2005, at the age of 45, in a car accident in California. He leaves behind a remarkable creative legacy, especially with work on the story of A Bug’s Life and crafting a memorable character like Heimlich.
During the production of A Bug’s Life, DreamWorks, SKG Animation, the studio co-founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg, former Chairman of Walt Disney Studios who left in a highly publicized exit in 1994, announced that they had entered into a partnership with the computer animation production company Pacific Data Images, to produce their own full-length animated feature.It would be called Antz and would also center on the insect world. The “Great Bug War of 1998” was launched, and there was some controversy surrounding the situation, particularly since both movies from the competing studios debuted about a month apart (for more on Antz, check out my “Cartoon Research” article from last month.
Despite all of the “swirl,” both films did very well at the box office and with critics. Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan wrote: “What A Bug’s Life demonstrates is that when it comes to bugs, the most fun ones to hang out with hang exclusively with the gang at Pixar.”
Released on November 14th, 1998, at the El Capitan theater and then on November 25, 1998, at theaters everywhere, A Bug’s Life has, in the twenty-five years since its release, been somewhat overshadowed by Pixar’s blockbuster films that followed.
However, for many, the film still resonates thanks not only to its stunning visuals but its relatable story as well, which John Lasseter discussed just before the film’s release.
“Part of what makes a great movie is character growth,” he said. “With Flik, he grows quite a bit, but more importantly, everyone around him, because of his influence, also grows a tremendous amount. That’s a lot like everyone’s lives. In your own life, you don’t realize all the people that you come in contact with – your friends, your loved ones – how much you affect them. It’s a really apt emotional core to the film that really fits with everyone’s everyday lives.”