Marginalized murder

Brian D. Johnson December 14 1998

Marginalized murder

Brian D. Johnson December 14 1998

Grown-up kids' stuff


December is the darkest month, and some of the movies out there make it seem even darker, grownup movies full of grown-up horror.

But there are days when you just may not be in the mood to watch an Asian hooker bleed to death in a Las Vegas hotel room (Very Bad Things). Or witness a trio of 16thcentury heretics burn at the stake (Elizabeth). Or see what the blood going down the drain in Psycho’s shower scene looks like in color. So what must an adult do to find some unadulterated joy at the movies? Go to a kiddie flick. Yes, a cartoon. Get a babysitter and catch A Bug’s Life on a Saturday night. Or suck back a martini or two and take a date to Babe: Pig in the City.

Of course, it is also possible to take children to one of these movies, to drag the family out to a weekend matinee. And for an adult to appreciate the full-diaper comedy of The Rugrats Movie, it helps to see it with an audience of actual rug rats, whose helium squeals become part of the sound track. But the real test of family entertainment is that it entertains the discriminating adult as well as the impressionable child. And some of the recent kid flicks are among the wittiest, most sophisticated movies to come out of Hollywood this year in any genre.

A Bug’s life is the blockbuster. Opening on the American Thanksgiving weekend, it broke box-office records by amassing a colossal anthill of $72 million in just five days—squeezing out Babe: Pig in the City, which came away from the trough with only $13 million. The success of A Bug’s

Life, however, is less remarkable than the fact that a Disney cartoon hitched to a massive toymerchandising campaign is not a contrived formula piece. But then, it was created by the computer wizards at Pixar Animation Studios, the team behind Toy Story (1995). And computer animation seems to have brought a fresh sense of innovation—and subversion—to cartoon features that goes beyond mere technique.

The similarities between Antz and A Bug’s Life are so striking that you have to wonder if the writers were spying on one another’s e-mail. Both are stories of a blindly conformist ant colony that is threatened by a fascist overlord. Both graft satirical Marxist economics to fables of heroic individualism. And in both cases, the hero is a social insect without social skills—a dreamer ant who overcomes a lack of self-esteem to woo

royalty and rescue the colony from totalitarian doom. But A Bug’s Life is a bigger, brighter, more kid-friendly movie. Although it lacks the Orwellian elegance of Antz, it boasts a stronger story, superior animation and a more colorful array of characters. Entomologists may wonder why the ants in A Bug’s Life have iridescent lavender complexions, Colgate smiles, two arms and two legs, but they could also question why Mickey Mouse wears white gloves. These insects are, above all, cute and cuddly.

Inspired by an Aesop fable, the story pits an industrious ant colony against a cruel gang of lazy grasshoppers. Like an absentee landlord, their malicious leader, Hopper (voiced by Kevin Spacey), forces the ants to fork over a huge portion of their harvest to him each season. The anti-heroic ant-hero is Flik (voiced by Canada’s Dave Foley), a hapless inventor who enlists a ragtag flea circus to fight the grasshoppers.

The ant voices include Phyllis Diller as the colony’s queen and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as her princess daughter. But the circus bugs

steal the show with an array of inventive sight gags. The troupe includes a ladybug (Denis Leary) who is insecure about his masculinity, a walking stick (David Hyde Pierce) who resents his role as a prop, and a black widow spider with a heart of gold (Bonnie Hunt). Riddled with subtle allusions—the circus troupe recalls the players’ troupe in Hamlet—A Bug’s Life has epic resonance. And the wit of the script rivals the animation in its acuity and detail.

Babe: Pig in the City uses its own share of computer animation, along with animal actors and animatronics, to create a puppetlike illusion of not-so-stupid pet tricks. Once again, the story involves circus folk—a vaudevillian troupe of chimpanzee wise guys and capuchin monkeys ruled by an orangutan godfather, with a scary clown played by Mickey Rooney. In this smart, beautiful and richly extravagant sequel to Babe (1995), the famous shepherding pig goes to town. In a strange city that looks like a theme-park jumble of Manhattan, Hollywood, Berlin and Sydney, he gets separated from his farm-wife guardian, Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski), and abducted by some gypsy chimps in an animal-shelter hotel.

The action may be too dark and scary for small children. There are harrowing chase scenes involving a Doberman, a bullterrier and a squad of animal-control storm troopers. A dog is hung by its hind legs in a canal almost to the point of drowning. But salvation always arrives in the nick of time, and ultimately Pig in the City is a feel-good fable. With eye-popping art direction, costumes and cinematography, it is also a surreal spectacle that recalls the finest reveries of Fellini and Terry Gilliam. Australian director George Miller spent $139 million on his sequel, and after the movie’s poor boxoffice performance, a studio head rolled at Universal Pictures. But Miller deserves credit for taking risks—and creating an inspired exception to the rule that the sequel never surpasses the original.

The Rugrats Movie offers talking babies instead of talking animals. But it is banal fare, a magic-free dose of bottled formula siphoned from the TV cartoon series. Some jokes are specifically designed to keep parents awake. But they are just ironic asides in a tale designed to push a lot of familiar buttons. It is a story of babes in the woods, literally—a band of babies gets lost in the forest. Knowingly derivative, the script is tarted up with mock references to Little Red Riding Hood and The Wizard of Oz. But Rugrats seems to work mostly as a dirty movie for little kids. The biggest laugh goes to a scene in a maternity ward, as a circle of newborns pee to form a fountain with a rainbow. We are a long way from Oz—when Dorothy sang Over the Rainbow, a golden shower was presumably not what she had in mind. □