At this point in the Disney animated canon, Walt Disney Studios is coming to the end of their Renaissance while a young upstart CGI studio named Pixar is on the rise. The House of Mouse put a lot of their effort into adapting a really tricky Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp-adventure, while the boys in Emeryville continued to push their engines with really impressive lighting and texture effects for a story about an outsider ant and their very first sequel. What results is a trio of stories that have epic action but very personal stakes. They prove that you don't need an apocalypse to provide a reason for the audience to be invested in what happens to your characters.
A Bug's Life (1998)
Pixar's second feature-length movie is about Flik, a young dreamer of an ant who just wants to help his colony gather enough food for the winter. In addition to tending to their needs, the colony is also under a tremendous strain providing an offering to a gang of huge, violent grasshoppers. When one of Flik's inventions accidentally sets the colony back weeks, he's exiled. Determined to find a way to drive off the grasshoppers, he recruits a group of hapless circus insects to fight them. Secrets and misunderstandings pile up until the whole operation collapses -- or does it? This is a children's movie, so you know how these things go.
A Bug's Life is surprisingly charming; even though it's one of the lesser efforts in Pixar's stable, I think that speaks to the overall quality of the studio more than any fault of this film. Flik is kind of vanilla as a protagonist, but his earnestness wins you over at some point and you find yourself rooting for the little guy. Hopper the grasshopper is an uncomplicated villain; just a jerk and a bully who uses superior size to get his way. In this context, it works -- this is a basic story that's told well, and that's all it tries to be.
The secondary characters flesh out the world with just enough personality to make them fun and relatable. I have a soft spot for Slim, the extremely-tall but erudite walking stick played by David Hyde Pierce but you're almost bound to come away with a favorite of your own. The voice cast is populated with sitcom actors who know their way around busy scenes -- the dialogue purrs with precision timing and expert delivery.
The animation may not have aged wonderfully, but when you look back on the improvements made over Toy Story you can't help but be impressed. The world of A Bug's Life is well-rendered; sunlight filters through grass and leaves in these wonderful ways, and the sense of scale suffuses every scene and new location in imaginative touches that just subtle enough that you don't consciously notice them. I think the most impressive thing about A Bug's Life is the attention to detail. Even with relatively pedestrian fare like this, Pixar didn't sleepwalk through the worldbuilding process. It's this devotion to concept that's made them one of the most-celebrated animation studios in history, and it's evident even here.
Did you know that at the time of its release, Tarzan was the most expensive animated film ever? It cost $130 million to make, and looking at the finished product you can see where the money most likely went. The title character is -- according to Wikipedia -- the first animated Disney character to display working muscles accurately. He does this while running, leaping and sliding through a three-dimensional environment that feels like a mixture of labyrinth and roller coaster. The movement and physicality on display is a genuine surprise. Tarzan has some of the most impressive action sequences I've seen in a Disney film, and I never thought I would say that.
The movie is a loose adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' pulp novel, removing the racism in the text and changing the third act so that Tarzan doesn't go to England. He didn't need to. His meeting of Jane, the charmingly eccentric but adaptable explorer, leads him to address his humanity in a way he never had before. Meanwhile, Clayton the guide serves as a memorable villain; the hunter of Tarzan's gorilla tribe, he forces the makeshift family to heal their fractures in a way they never would have managed otherwise. Tarzan's navigation through the tension between his wild upbringing and "civilized" nature becomes a thoroughly engaging arc. When he comes into his own as leader and protector, it's a thrill.
But the real selling point is the animation. It's shockingly under-appreciated in its ambition and scope; as Tarzan moves through the environment, it's hard to tell what's more impressive -- the gorgeous background as it flies by, or the pitch-perfect physicality he displays. The jungle is lush and deep, almost a character in its own right. When you step back to consider how firmly integrated the characters are in their environment, you have to wonder how in the world they managed to animate a world that looks like so much more than a hand-drawn foreground character moving over a painted cel background. It's the most three-dimensional traditionally animated world I've ever seen.
The care that was used to animate Tarzan is evident in every move he makes. He carries himself like his primate brethren, even though the proportions are all wrong. Far from making him look deformed, his posture and movement is supremely functional; he looks just like a human who has been raised by apes would look, all sinew and grace. It's a strange mixture of brutish, wild strength and a dancer's poise that shouldn't work but totally does.
Tarzan's friends -- the female gorilla Turk and the nervous elephant Tantor -- are fine. Rosie O'Donnell and Wayne Knight work well together, but more often than not I feel they're distractions rather than enhancements. Maybe I'm less tolerant of comic relief characters in my old age.
Still, if you haven't seen Tarzan in a while, it's definitely worth a second look. The animation is truly a work of art, and the Phil Collins soundtrack isn't as bad as I remembered.
Toy Story 2 (1999)
After the success of A Bug's Life, Pixar returned to Woody and Buzz for Toy Story 2. While sequels are usually at best interesting failures, this one cemented the studio's status as a major player in animation and remains one of the most well-regarded movies of all time -- and for good reason.
After Woody is broken right before Andy was meant to take him to summer camp, he is accidentally sold to a collector looking for the crown jewel of a complete -- and incredibly rare -- Woody's Round-Up toy set. Facing the inevitability of abandonment as Andy grow up, Woody at first relishes his newfound superstar status. Meanwhile, the rest of the toys in Andy's room mount a desperate rescue operation to get Woody back before Andy gets home.
Toy Story 2 expands and deepens the theme and premise of its predecessor in an organic but surprising way. A toy's entire purpose in life is to bring joy to the child that owns it, but eventually the kid will grow up and become interested in other things. That's just a part of growing up. Where does that leave the toy, though? It's a relatively ageless thing, and for it nothing has changed. That bond can't simply be erased. When a seemingly permanent love suddenly becomes unrequited, the effects are devastating. How do we deal with the grief of impermanence? How do we balance our personal needs with the needs of friends and fellows?
It's surprisingly adult talk for a children's movie to have, and while Toy Story 2 is funnier and more inventive than the original it's also a series of body blows emotionally speaking. Jessie -- a spunky cowgirl who's been trapped in storage waiting for Woody to complete their collection -- has a backstory that chokes me up just thinking about it. "When She Loved Me" is a song so full of ache and longing it's impossible not to be touched.
Both Jessie and Stinky Pete are unable to deal with their isolation and the frustration of their unfulfilled purpose. Even as it causes them to lash out in these troubling ways, it's understandable. You can't help but feel sympathy for them. And ultimately, the movie seems to say that we must each find our own way to deal with these very real and difficult realities of life. What works for one may not work for everyone, and it only compounds our trouble if we try to force others to follow the same solution.
Alternately, respecting and helping one another with those struggles is the best way to deal with our own. The bonds we form doing this allows us to bear the burden of life; it doesn't make it any easier, but it does make it worthwhile. It's a bittersweet lesson, but a welcome one. I think it's one of the first children's movies I've seen to address such an existential problem in a manner that doesn't feel facile or condescending. And that's nothing short of amazing.