Hiya folks. Welcome back to Dyl’s Ultimate Movie Tournament. Sorry for the delay. I spent all weekend watching Star Wars movies on accident. I hope everyone else had a good Intergalactic Star Wars Day. Today’s match-up is a Pixar clash (for the ages?). We have #32 A Bug’s Life facing off against #225 Cars 2. Which of these John Lasseter directed movies is going to win out? Let’s find out!
#32 – A Bug’s Life (1998)
Director: John Lasseter
Writers: Andrew Stanton, Donald McEnery, Bob Shaw, John Lasseter, and Joe Ranft
Starring: Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Hayden Panettiere, Phyllis Diller, Richard Kind, David Hyde Pierce, Joe Ranft, Denis Leary, Jonathan Harris, Madeline Kahn, Bonnie Hunt, Michael McShane, John Ratzenberger, and Brad Garrett
Plot: While looking for warriors to help protect his colony, an ant accidentally returns with circus performers instead.
Mini-Review: For decades now, A Bug’s Life has been kind of shorthand for “average” Pixar for me. Whether a Pixar movie is good or not is irrelevant. On an even playing field with all other movies, basically every single one of them is going to be on the good side. However, because of their extremely high batting average, they’re judged on more of a curve. And, I feel that Pixar accidentally set this rating scale for their future releases with their first two films. Is it a Toy Story or a Bug’s Life? Meaning, is it deeply imaginative, groundbreaking, and surprisingly emotional, or is it more by-the-book yet still creative and entertaining? Yeah. A Bug’s Life is definitely, well, A Bug’s Life. More or less, what I’m trying to say is that A Bug’s Life is really good. It just suffers by comparison to some of the other Pixar flicks.
I’d say the main thing that’s pushing A Bug’s Life to the back or middle-back of the Pixar pack is the story. Again, there’s nothing wrong with it per se. It’s just not all that original either. It’s basically just Three Amigos but with bugs. There’s not a whole lot of emotional weight to it. Sure, we don’t want to see the ants be bullied anymore, but there’s nothing super relatable to their struggle. Maybe if we had seen Hopper actually stomp on someone there’d be a more urgent sense of danger. I don’t know. It just felt like it was missing a little bit of a spark.
Also, I’m not 100% sure the computers were ready for something like A Bug’s Life yet. I mean… it definitely looks better than Antz (we’ll get to that rivalry soon) and is a step up from the Toy Story animation on a technical level. It’s just the characters still look kind of plastic-y and some of the nature effects definitely haven’t aged well. The water during the climax looks especially odd. You can tell that the Pixar team was careful with what projects they picked, not jumping to humans yet. But, I do think that bugs may have still been a step too far.
A Bug’s Life definitely isn’t lacking in comedy though. I thought it was hilarious as a kid and find it every bit as funny today. I’ll break them down in the smackdown section later, but the energy that the circus bugs bring is infectious. I’m not sure the movie would shine half as bright without them. Each one has their own distinct personality and their own thing that made me laugh. I would definitely watch a series about them just trying their hardest to make it in show business.
And, even when Pixar goes for a more straight forward story approach, they always still manage to breathe some life into it through world-building. A Bug’s Life is no exception. I really liked the world the bugs lived in. I liked how Flik’s inventions actually looked like something an ant could build. I liked the city made up of discarded trash. I liked that the mosquitos drank blood and the flies ate poop at the bar. And there were a million more small (no pun intended) things that just made this movie better. Those are the things I really appreciate. They make even the lesser Pixar movies stand out from other studios’ bests.
Overall, I really, really like A Bug’s Life. It definitely isn’t one of my favorite Pixar movies but it is worth checking out or revisiting. At the very least, it’ll make you smile. And sometimes that’s all you can really ask for.
#225 – Cars 2 (2011)
Director: John Lasseter
Writers: Ben Queen, John Lasseter, Brad Lewis, and Dan Fogelman
Starring: Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, John Turturro, and Eddie Izzard
Plot: While Lightning McQueen participates in a race around the world, Mater gets caught up in a secret espionage task force aiming to stop someone from sabotaging it.
Remember when I mentioned my Pixar rating system? How something is either a Toy Story or A Bug’s Life? (Of course you do. We literally just talked about it.) Well, in the case of Cars 2, throw that out. Because Cars 2 is not a good movie. It’s not just Pixar bad. It’s actually bad. Like, it’s one of the movies I was dreading rewatching most in this whole tournament bad. And, upon my rewatch, it didn’t get much better.
I often hear that the biggest problem with Cars 2 is that they took a minor comic relief character like Mater and pushed him to the forefront, meaning the audience grew tired of him. I’m going to have to disagree with that assessment. Mater is not the problem with Cars 2. It’s that they didn’t give Mater anything interesting to do. According to the man himself, John Lasseter got the idea for the story of Cars 2 while doing press for Cars. He kept imagining how Mater would react to all of the different cultures and it made him laugh. I get that line of thinking. However, why the heck did you make him a spy? What about the first film made you want to take the leap into espionage? It’s such a weird idea that just doesn’t work. I was bored out of my mind for like 80% of this movie. The spy stuff just could not hold my interest at all. And, worse than that, I didn’t find any of it funny. (It features a lot of body gross-out humor, which is super rare for Pixar.) Now, maybe it’s just that I am too old for it and was even when it came out. However, Disney and, especially, Pixar have always been so good at telling stories that are for everyone and not just the toddlers in the audience. This is one of the few that doesn’t feel that way. I even enjoyed Cars and Cars 3 infinitely more than this one.
Throughout Cars 2, I was trying really, really hard to get into it. I was looking for something (anything) to enjoy. That’s when I noticed the gorgeous cityscapes. Whenever they entered a new country, I loved how they panned over different landmarks and streets, giving you a real feel for the country. Despite the Cars puns, it was actually really artfully done by the team at Pixar. And, the animation was beautiful. That’s when I realized that, as a straight racing movie, Cars 2 isn’t really all that bad. Lightning McQueen’s story, jumping from country to country in a Grand Prix, is actually kind of interesting. He’s got a good rival. There’s a lot of cool backdrops. And, it’s actually pretty funny. Then, while Lightning was being dragged around by Mater, still oblivious to the whole spy situation, I realized something. This would all be funnier if we also were oblivious to Mater’s escapades. Like, we’d just see him disappear without any context. He’d still have the same excuses to tell Lightning, but whether or not we believed him would be on us. Then, in the final moments, we get a quick (nothing more than like 5 minutes) flashback where we see that he was telling the truth the whole time. I think this would help in a couple different ways. First of all, it’d be more focused. Second, it’s a better sequel to Cars. Then, we still get the wackiness of Mater’s adventures without actually wasting time on them. And, finally, I think those adventures are funnier to think about and not have fully explored. Let our imaginations fill in the gaps. Then, again, you could keep the spy stuff out altogether. I don’t know though. Who am I to judge? I’m no John Lasseter. I didn’t form one of the most successful movie studios of all time. I’m just a white dude in his twenties, writing about movies on the internet. There’s a million of me.
Overall, I’m not a fan of Cars 2. It kinda sucks to be honest. The animation is beautiful, but, other than that, there’s not a lot to see here. It’s Pixar’s only bad, bad movie in my opinion. And, for a studio that’s been around for 25 years and 22 movies, that’s pretty dang impressive.
The Disney Smackdown
This is where we quickly compare the movies against metrics that almost all Disney movies meet. It won’t necessarily determine the winner, but it will help break some stuff down into a nice digestible format.
Our Heroes: In A Bug’s Life, our hero is Flik. He’s your typical town oddball. He’s an inventor with grand ideas to help the colony, but does not have the best track record for actually pulling them off. He’s clumsy. He makes mistakes. But, he’s always trying to do what’s best. I really like Flik, even if he’s a cliche we’ve seen in other movies. Watching him never give up, instead coming up with new, better solutions was inspiring.
In Cars 2, our heroes are the returning Lightning McQueenand Mater. Lightning is still relatively humbled from his experiences in the first movie. He only enters the big race to stand up for his friend. We do see him slip back into his old habits when he loses his temper a little bit after some trash talking and a few bad performances. However, he grows to realize that winning just doesn’t matter if he loses Mater in the process. Mater on the other hand is super supportive of his friend. He’s also very easy going, which gets him into a lot of trouble. We do get to dive a little bit into his psyche when he has nightmares about being called stupid. But, I don’t think the movie really earns that because, well, he is kind of stupid. He eventually solves the case in the end, but, like, it almost seems miraculous. The movie just tells us he’s smart enough to do it without ever really showing us how. Still, I do like both of these characters. A lot of that goodwill probably comes from the first Cars movie though, as they aren’t super well developed here.
I’m going to give this point to A Bug’s Life for getting me to form a connection in one movie, rather than relying on my feelings from another.
Our Beloved Side Characters: As I stated before, this category is where A Bug’s Life really shines. First of all, in the royal family, we’ve got three strong female characters. There’s the fun-loving, wise, and seasoned Queen, who is about to retire. Her daughter Princess Atta is trying her hardest to learn how to properly govern, while also dealing with a once in a lifetime disaster. Then, there’s the youngest daughter, Dot, who is in many ways the heart of the movie. When the grasshoppers attack, she is the one we see get upset. She’s also the one that is encouraging to Flik, even when the whole colony has turned on him. And, then, we’ve got the circus trope, who I honestly love. There’s Slim, the stick bug, who wants to be a serious actor but is always typecast as a stick for obvious reasons. Then, we’ve got Heimlich. He’s adorable, being all fat and scared and stuff. There’s Francis, the male ladybug. At the beginning of the movie, he’s constantly getting upset about being misgendered. However, towards the end, we see him evolve into a calmer, more caring bug who’s in touch with their feminine side. It’s probably the best character arc in the film. Manny and Gypsy are fun, self-serious magicians. Dim’s role in the circus is to act ferocious, but he’s a big softie who loves kids. And, Rosie serves as his caretaker since he’s basically just a big child. And, finally, we’ve got Tuck and Roll, two pillbugs who are probably my favorite. They don’t speak English, so they never quite know what’s going on, but they always bring the perfect punchline to every moment. Their slapstick is right up there with the Three Stooges. So, yeah, that’s quite the supporting cast. And, to top it all off, they’re all perfectly voiced by some of the funniest actors of all time. Pixar always has top-notch casts, but A Bug’s Life might just be their best.
Pretty much the whole town of Radiator Springs returns (with a couple recasts due to actors passing), but are pretty much sidelined for Cars 2. Instead, they are replaced by a couple of uninteresting spy cliches. There’s Finn McMissile. The most interesting thing about him is that he’s voiced by Michael Caine. Other than that, he’s just your generic James Bond stand-in. I’m sure some of his action scenes were appealing to kids, but seeing a car do those things was just too weird and/or silly for me to get over. And, no James Bond parody is complete without a Bond girl. In this case, we have Holley Shiftwell who… is there. We’re told that she is Mater’s girlfriend, but we never see any connection or romance between them. Both new characters are both easily forgettable. They don’t have a lot that make them stand out other than the spy tropes.
Easy win for A Bug’s Life.
Villainous Villains: A Bug’s Life features one of the best villains Pixar has given us in Hopper. He’s a straight-up bully. We see that he steals from the ants even though he doesn’t have to. He kills anyone who stands up to him, even his own men. His design is perfect. I mean the guy just looks mean. And he’s perfectly voiced by… oh no. This is awkward… How do I get around this? He’s voiced by… *whisper* Kevin Spacey *end whisper*, who made a career out of playing intimidating jerks so you know he’s perfect for this. Am I allowed to say that? Oh shoot. I’m gonna get in trouble. Let me clarify. The dude was a total scumbag. I hate him for what he did. But, damn, did I enjoy his performances (this one included) before I learned that. C’mon, Kevin Spacey, why’d you have to go and ruin Kevin Spacey for me? (Also, if we’re talking about people ruined by their own reputation John Lasseter is a creep too. Darn. This movie is great but the credits really don’t hold up.) Ok… moving on. There’s two other grasshoppers I feel are worth mentioning. First, there’s Molt, Hopper’s brother, who is absolutely terrified of Hopper. He’s always made me smile. And, finally, there’s Thumper who is worth mentioning for no other reason than he’s terrifying. Like, legit scary. The fact that he’s humanized like all of the other bugs but has this animalistic sensibility makes him one of the scarier Disney villains period.
Probably my favorite new character in Cars 2 is Francesco Bernouilli. He’s a Formula One racer and Lightning McQueen’s main rival. We don’t really get to know a lot about him, but he’s super good at trash talking. Also, he’s cocky. I think a lot of my admiration for him comes from John Turturro’s performance. I didn’t realize that he voiced him until the end credits, but when I saw his name everything made perfect sense. I love Turturro in The Big Lebowski and he pretty much brings the same energy here. The other main villain we spend a good amount of screentime with is Professor Z. Like Finn and Holley, he’s more or less just a stand-in for a 007 archetype. If he were a Bond villain, he’d be a boring one though as there is nothing distinct or threatening about him. There are also a couple named henchmen and a surprise big villain at the end, but they aren’t even interesting enough to mention.
Hopper is legit scary. A Bug’s Life takes this point as well.
Quotable Quotes: From A Bug’s Life: “Someday I will be a beautiful butterfly and then everything will be better.” “First rule of leadership: everything is your fault.” “Hey. Turn your butt off.” “I’m the only stick with eyeballs.” “You fired!”
From Cars 2: “Do not eat the free pistachio ice cream!” “Two Mater, average intelligence.”
Like I said, A Bug’s Life has me rolling and, therefore, has more memorable quotes.
Songs to Add to Your Playlist: A Bug’s Life features one song from Randy Newman called “The Time of Your Life.” It’s good, but not nearly as iconic as his work in Toy Story. Every time I listen to it, I really enjoy the chorus and become bored by the other verses. I don’t know. It’s a weird song.
Brad Paisley and Robbie Williams performed a song for Cars 2 called “Collision of Worlds” which compares U.S. and British culture, only to find out they’re not so different after all. It’s not very good. Also, there’s a Weezer cover of “You Might Think” by The Cars if you want to count that. I honestly didn’t even realize it was a cover though.
Wow. There’s not a lot here. If I had to pick one, I guess the Randy Newman song from A Bug’s Life wins.
Most Magical Disney Moment: My favorite scene in A Bug’s Life is probably when we meet the circus trope for the first time. They’re putting on a show that’s honestly a disaster. You can see their boss P.T. Flea trying to hold the whole thing together by just throwing anything he can at the audience. I love this scene because it really puts each of the individual characters on display in a really clever way. We only spend a couple of seconds with each, but instantly understand what makes each of them tick. (No pun intended.) Plus, we get to see that imaginative world-building and sense of humor that Pixar is famous for.
For Cars 2, I’ve got to go with the short sequence where Mater plays with the disguise technology, rapidly switching between disguises. It’s easily one of my favorite moments in the movie. It shows off Pixar’s design creativity, Mater’s infectious personality, and the good vocal work by Larry the Cable Guy. Also, it leads to one of the more touching moments when Mater refuses to have his dents removed because they remind him of the good times he’s had with Lightning. This movie doesn’t have a whole lot of that trademark Pixar heart so I liked to see it shine through a little bit there.
While both moments are great, I’ve got to give it to A Bug’s Life. That scene made me smile the entire time.
Legacies: A Bug’s Life left behind a pretty big legacy, actually. It has a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, making it certified fresh, and a 7.2 on IMDB. It was the fourth highest-grossing movie of 1998. The movie was nominated for one Academy Award. It won the Grammy for Best Movie Score. There is currently only one attraction based on the film left in the parks. It’s Tough to Be a Bug in Animal Kingdom is a fun, 4-D movie experience where Flik and the other bugs do a PSA on why we should be nicer to bugs. It also has a reputation for making children cry by being one of the scariest rides in the park. It used to have a clone in Disney’s California Adventure. It was located in A Bug’s Land which had several kiddie rides based on the characters from A Bug’s Life. However, this land was closed to make way for Avengers Campus in 2018. Flik, Princess Atta, and a handful of the circus bugs have been meetable characters as well. But, maybe the biggest part of its legacy is the fight it generated between Disney and Dreamworks. During the development of A Bug’s Life, John Lasseter had a chat with his friend Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had recently left the company after a feud with then CEO Michael Eisner and formed DreamWorks animation. During this conversation, he outlined his plans for A Bug’s Life. A few months later, DreamWorks announced Antz, which had a very similar basis as the Pixar film. This led to a bit of a public rivalry between the two companies that kind of still exists today. Even though A Bug’s Life crushed Antz at the box office, they will forever be paired together in the minds of the general public as well. I, for one, was always creeped out by Antz. The animation style looks rushed. But, that’s a review for another day. Anyways, I’d say that A Bug’s Life definitely left its mark on the world of Disney.
Cars 2’s legacy isn’t very good to be honest. It’s kind of universally accepted as the worst Pixar movie. It currently has a 39% on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the only rotten release from the studio yet, and a 6.1 on IMDB. It did, however, finish in the top ten highest grossing movies of 2011. When it came to awards season, Cars 2 was the first Pixar movie not nominated for an Academy Award, though it did receive a nomination at the Golden Globes. It’s hard to tell exactly how big of an impact this one individual film had, since it’s part of a larger franchise. We do know that it seemingly did not slow down the Cars franchise very much. A third Cars film, which received a much warmer reception, still came out a few years later. Likewise, the cartoon series still continued and Cars Land opened shortly after in Disney’s California Adventure, along with some smaller attractions in other parks. It is telling, however, that none of these properties directly mention the events or characters introduced in Cars 2. Even among the franchise, it’s sort of the black sheep.
I mean… this is easy right. A Bug’s Life‘s legacy is at least positive.
AND THE WINNER IS…
A BUG’S LIFE
This was one of the easier decisions I’ve had to make. I can’t stress enough how bad Cars 2 really is. And, while A Bug’s Life isn’t perfect, it’s miles and miles ahead. It’s hard to believe they were made by the same studio, let alone the same director.
So, congratulations, Flik, Princess Atta, and the circus trope! You move on to fight another day.
As always, thanks for reading. Let me know how you feel about these movies in the comments. I had fun with this one, even if it was just reaffirming my previous thoughts. Be sure to check back for the next fight. It’s gonna be a good one. It’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People, which I’ve never seen but heard is terrific, versus Angels in the Outfield, which I saw as a kid but not since. I’m very much looking forward to it, so there shouldn’t be much of a delay either.
See ya real soon!
Hearing your descriptions of the circus cast of Bug’s Life really brought back all the smiles this movie gave me as a kid! I totally want to rewatch it now!!
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