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Wednesday, December 2, 1998

A Bug's Life

Posted By on Wed, Dec 2, 1998 at 12:00 AM

For the first half hour or so, John Lassetter's A Bug's Life is utterly predictable. Wanting, waiting, willing to help, the good guys charm the audience with their innocent smiles and their round, sparkling eyes captured in tight close-ups, while the bad guys -- sharp mandibles and thundering voices -- take over the screen with their rotten, yellow presence.

The story is the oldest in the book: Traditional and industrious, a small colony of ants toils all summer long gathering food for an otherwise outnumbered gang of grasshoppers. Why are they doing it? Because they've always done it. "They come, they eat, they leave," says the queen mother in a trembling voice. There's nothing to it, really. You just have to get used to it.

While the ants work themselves to death, the grasshoppers party in a Mexican bar -- where else? -- and that puts a smile on our faces, since anything south of the border smacks of road movies, outlaw couples and runaway thieves dying for a taco. But the cinematic references don't stop here. There's also the place, reminiscent of the intergalactic Star Wars pub, where our hero -- a feeble-voiced inventor-buffoon, a Martin Short of the ant race -- looks for warrior bugs that could help the colony defend itself.

Then comes the real surprise: The "mercenaries" hired for the job are circus performers for whom the colony puts on a show, a play-within-a-play which acts out the ending of the film -- the ants' undisputed victory over the grasshoppers. This theatrical exchange between the stage and the arena -- between players and circus performers -- shifts the emphasis from the action itself to the joy of the performance. And should this shift from "What happens next?" to "The play's the thing!" pass unnoticed, the performers -- a spiderette with the looks of Morticia Addams; an elongated insect jester; an enterprising Munchausen-like caterpillar; a macho, gender-bending ladybug -- are there to collect applause for their own familiar masks.

A word of advice: If you want the whole, delightful package, make an effort and sit through the credits.

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