Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Pixar Edition. A Bug’s Life

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: A Bug’s Life

Year: 1998

Source materials: Aesop’s The Ant and the Grasshopper and The Seven Samuari

Budget: $120 million

Box office: $363.3 million

Plot: Ant Island is a colony of ants led by the Queen and her daughter, Princess Atta. Every season, they are forced to give food to a gang of marauding grasshoppers led by Hopper.


One day, when Flik, an individualist and would-be inventor, inadvertently knocks the offering into a stream with his latest invention, a grain harvesting device, Hopper demands twice as much food as compensation. When Flik suggests in earnest that they seek help from other stronger bugs, the other ants see it as an opportunity to remove him and send him off.


At the “bug city”, which is a heap of trash under a trailer, the naïve Flik mistakes a troupe of Circus Bugs who were recently dismissed by their greedy ringmaster, P.T. Flea, for the warrior bugs he seeks. The bugs, in turn, mistake Flik for a talent agent and accept his offer to travel with him back to Ant Island.


During a welcome ceremony upon their arrival, the Circus Bugs and Flik both discover their mutual misunderstandings. The Circus Bugs attempt to leave but are attacked by a bird; while fleeing, they save Dot, Atta’s younger sister, gaining the ants’ respect in the process.


At Flik’s request, they continue the ruse of being “warriors” so the troupe can continue to enjoy the hospitality of the ants. Hearing that Hopper fears birds inspires Flik to create a false bird to scare away the grasshoppers.


Meanwhile, Hopper tells his gang how greatly the ants outnumber them and worries that they will eventually rebel against them. The ants finish constructing the fake bird, but during a celebration, P.T. Flea arrives searching for his troupe and he inadvertently reveals their secret. Outraged by Flik’s deception, the ants exile him and desperately gather food for a new offering to the grasshoppers.


However, when Hopper returns to discover the mediocre offering, he takes over the island and demands the ants’ winter food supply, planning to assassinate the Queen afterwards. Overhearing the plan, Dot informs Flik and the Circus Bugs and convinces them to return to Ant Island.

After rescuing the Queen, Flik deploys the bird; it initially fools the grasshoppers, but P.T. Flea, also mistaking it for a real bird, burns it, exposing it as a decoy. Hopper beats Flik in retaliation and says that the ants are humble and lowly life forms who live to serve the grasshoppers. However, Flik responds that Hopper actually fears the colony, because he has always known what they are capable of, inspiring the ants and the Circus Bugs to fight back against the grasshoppers.


The ants attempt to force Hopper out of Ant Island using P.T. Flea’s circus cannon, but it suddenly begins to rain. In the ensuing chaos, Hopper frees himself from the cannon and flies off with Flik. After the Circus Bugs fail to catch them, Atta rescues Flik. As Hopper pursues them, Flik lures him to the nest of the bird he, Dot, and the Circus Bugs encountered earlier. Thinking that the bird is another decoy, Hopper taunts it before discovering it is real, and is captured and fed to its chicks.


At springtime, Flik has improved his inventions and the quality of life for Ant Island, and Atta professes her love for him, and they give Hopper’s younger brother Molt, and a few ants to P.T. Flea as new members of his troupe. Atta and Dot respectively become the new queen and princess. The ants congratulate Flik as a hero and bid a fond farewell to the circus troupe, who promise to return in the future.

Background: During a lunchtime conversation between John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, and Joe Ranft, Pixar came up with several ideas for their next films such as Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo. One of those was a story based on Aesop’s fable The Ant and the Grasshopper. They felt that insects, like toys, were something that was in the realm of their skills. They pitched the film to Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Lasseter assigned the co-director job to Stanton as both worked well together and had similar sensibilities.


The film became a focal point between Jeffery Katzenberg, former chairman of Disney’s film division, and Steve Jobs and Lasseter. A general timeline:

  • Katzenberg had left the company in 1994 in a bitter feud with Michael Eisner. In response, he formed DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.
  • DreamWorks’ acquired Pacific Data Images (PDI), Pixar’s contemporary in computer animation.
  • In October 1995, when Lasseter called Katzenberg, as the two were still friends, and dropped by with Stanton. When Katzenberg asked what they were doing next, Lasseter described what would become A Bug’s Life in detail.1Katzenberg claimed Antz came from a 1991 story pitch by Tim Johnson that was related to Katzenberg in October 1994.
  • When the trades indicated production on Antz, Lasseter, feeling betrayed, called Katzenberg and asked him bluntly if it were true, who in turn asked him where he had heard the rumor. Lasseter asked again, and Katzenberg admitted it was true.
  • Katzenberg was further angered by the fact that Eisner scheduled A Bug’s Life to open the same week as The Prince of Egypt, which was then intended to be DreamWorks’ first animated release. Katzenberg earlier convinced composer Stephen Schwartz to leave Mulan and work on Prince of Egypt instead.
  • Katzenberg moved the opening of Antz from spring 1999 to October 1998 to compete with Pixar’s release. 2
  • Jobs was furious and called Katzenberg and began yelling. Katzenberg made an offer: He would delay production of Antz if Jobs and Disney would move A Bug’s Life so that it did not compete with The Prince of Egypt. 3 He suggested that if Jobs wanted to, he could simply slow down production on A Bug’s Life without telling Disney. If he did, Katzenberg said, he would put Antz on hold.4
  • Lasseter publicly dismissed Antz as a “schlock version” of A Bug’s Life. According to Jobs, Katzenberg came to Jobs after the success of Shrek and insisted he had never heard the pitch for A Bug’s Life.  5

Changes from the Source Material: In The Ant and the Grasshopper, a grasshopper squanders the spring and summer months on singing while the ants put food away for the winter; when winter comes, the hungry grasshopper begs the ants for food, but the ants turn him away.

Animation: In order to view the world from an insect’s perspective, they created a miniature video camera on Lego wheels, which they called the “Bugcam”. Fastened to the end of a stick, the Bugcam could roll through grass and other terrain and send back a ground level outlook. 6


Although the animators studied insects, they still had to make them likeable and not too scary. They took out the mandibles and designed the ants to stand upright, giving them two arms and two legs like humans.

The animators had to find a way to handle shots with multiple ants. There were too many to program individually, but they couldn’t remain static without appearing lifeless or move with identical movements. Bill Reeves lead the development of software for autonomous ants. They would only animate four or five groups of about eight individual ants. Then these ants would later be randomly distributed and each ant to be automatically modified in subtle ways, so that no two ants were the same.

The animators also employed subsurface scattering 7 to render surfaces. It deals with the property of light to be refracted through semi-translucent object, like skin.

Music and Songs: The film’s score was composed and conducted by Randy Newman. The album’s first track is a song called “The Time of Your Life” written and performed by Newman, while all the other 19 tracks are orchestral cues

Voice Cast:

Dave Foley as Flik. He is known for the comedy group The Kids in the Hall and playing Dave Nelson in NewsRadio. He will later be heard in Prep and Landing and Monsters University. Kevin Spacey 8 as Hopper. Among his credits are The Usual Suspects 9 and American Beauty. 10 He won a Tony Award in 1991 for his role in Lost in Yonkers. He played Frank Underwood in House of Cards.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Princess Atta. She started out as a cast member on Saturday Night Live and has appeared in several television shows, most notably Seinfeld, The New Adventures of Old Christine, and Veep. She is one of the most celebrated television actors of her generation, winning more Emmy Awards and more Screen Actors Guild Awards than any other performer. 11 Hayden Panettiere as Dot. As a child actor she appeared in One Life to Live, Guiding Light, and Ally McBeal. As an adult she appeared in Heroesand Nashville.

Phyllis Diller 12 as the Queen. She was a groundbreaking stand up comedian, one of the first woman comics to become a household name. She appeared in several guest starring roles and was a voice on Mad Monster Party. Richard Kind as Molt. He is known for Mad About You and Spin City. He will later voice roles in the Cars series, Toy Story 3, and Inside Out.

David Hyde Pierce as Slim. He is best known for playing Niles Crane on Fraiser. 13 On Broadway he appeared in Monty Python’s Spamalot! and Curtains. 14 Joe Ranft 15 as Heimlich. He was an animator at Disney, starting with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, before moving over to Pixar.

Denis Leary as Francis. Starting as a stand up comedian, he has appeared in several films including The Sandlot, Monument Ave., The Matchmaker, The Ref, Draft Day, Suicide Kings, Dawg, Wag the Dog, Demolition Man, Judgment Night, The Thomas Crown Affair, Operation Dumbo Drop, and The Amazing Spider-Man. He created and starred in the television series Rescue Me. Jonathan Harris 16 as Manny. He’s best known for playing Dr. Smith on the television series Lost in Space and will appear in Toy Story 2.

 Madeline Kahn 17 as Gypsy. She’s best known for her roles in Mel Brooks’s comedies Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, andThe History of the World, Part One. She also appeared in the film Clue. He won the 1993 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for the comedy The Sisters Rosensweig. Bonnie Hunt as Rosie. Her film roles include Rain Man, Beethoven, Beethoven’s 2nd, Jumanji, Jerry Maguire, The Green Mile, Cheaper by the Dozen, and Cheaper by the Dozen 2. She will continue todo voice work in Monsters, Inc., Cars, Toy Story 3, Cars 2, Monsters University, Zootopia, and Cars 3.

Michael McShane as Tuck and Roll. He appeared on the original British television show Whose Line Is It Anyway? and went on to appear in films such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Richie Rich, and Office Space. Brad Garrett as Dim. He is best known as Robert Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond. 18 He will later lend his voice to Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, and Tangled.

Roddy McDowall 19 as Mr. Soil. He is best known for portraying Cornelius and Caesar in the original Planet of the Apes film series. Other films include Cleopatra, The Longest Day, The Greatest Story Ever Told, That Darn Cat!, Inside Daisy Clover, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Poseidon Adventure, Funny Lady, The Black Hole, Class of 1984, Fright Night, Overboard, and Fright Night Part 2. Edie McClurg as Dr. Flora. After making her film debut in the movie Carrie, she appeared in several films and television shows including A River Runs Through It, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, WKRP in Cincinnati, She’s Having a Baby, The Hogan Family, Small Wonder, Back to School, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and 7th Heaven. She has leant her voice to Cars, Cars 2, The Little Mermaid, Wreck-It Ralph, Home on the Range, The Secret of NIMH, and Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Where in the World is John Ratzenberger? : P.T. Flea, the owner of the circus


Pizza Planet Truck: It’s seen right after the circus scene. The same setting will be see in Monsters, Inc.


A 113: On a cereal box when Flix first arrives in the city

Critical Reception: Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three and a half stars out of four, saying “Will A Bug’s Life suffer by coming out so soon after Antz? Not any more than one thriller hurts the chances for the next one. Antz may even help business for A Bug’s Life by demonstrating how many dramatic and comedic possibilities can be found in an anthill.”

Legacy: A game, based on the film, was developed by Traveller’s Tales and Tiertex Design Studios and released by Sony Computer Entertainment, Disney Interactive, THQ and Activision for various systems.


A Bug’s Land is a section of Disney California Adventure that is inspired by A Bug’s Life. One of the main attractions is the 3D show It’s Tough to Be a Bug! which is also in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The characters also appear in the Pixar Parade at California Adventure.

My take: This is a strong sophomore outing from Pixar. It’s a great cast with a fun story. It doesn’t get the same kind of love that others do, but it’s still pretty good. The bird sequence is great too.

I have only seen Antz once and I remember little about. But you know it was cool because they spelled with a Z.

Next Week: We head to the jungle for Tarzan