The Eyes Have It

-- Robert Hunt

A BUG'S LIFE
Directed by John Lasseter and
Andrew Stanton

Sometimes the most sparkling, surprising entertainment comes jam-packed in a so-called children's film. Enter A Bug's Life, visually stunning computer-graphic animation with vibrant colors and extraordinary panoramas, exceptional camera angles and impeccable editing in widescreen CinemaScope. Equally impressive, director John Lasseter, with co-director Andrew Stanton, economically establishes likable characters (OK, bugs) who move his mythic story briskly. Lasseter, who guided Pixar's Toy Story to popular acclaim, again relies on rapid-fire, clever dialogue with verbal and visual puns and allusions so plentiful they fly by too quickly for us to digest them all. Imaginative, funny and with a solid message, A Bug's Life has heart and wit.

The obligatory, colony-threatening crisis is precipitated by bumbling Flik's catastrophic error. With unquestioning ritual, ants gather food at harvest time every year to appease the dreaded grasshoppers, led by the tyrannical Hopper. When Flik accidentally destroys the ants' offering, he must devise a defense. Seven Samurai-style, Flik decides he'll implore stronger and more daring species to defeat the grasshoppers and preserve his colony. But no one has ever dared leave Ant Island or conceived so heroic (or insane) a scheme.

Flik's magical journey across the dry river bed begins a fabulous adventure. After finding P.T. Flea's circus, Flik erroneously identifies a ragtag troupe of unemployed performers as warrior insects and, through reciprocal miscommunication, returns with them. Ever inventive, Flik uses his brains to escape numerous threats, including a hungry bird and the terrifying grasshoppers. Never heavy-handed, the plot highlights themes of courage and resourcefulness.

A variety of plant and animal life is rendered in luminous, iridescent colors, whereas Bugville is darker but sensational. Sweeping, complicated action scenes took animators up to 100 hours to render one frame of film, which runs 24 frames per second. The average shot required 15 hours per frame, indicating the degree of detail and care required to personify and individualize these appealing personalities: a sweet black-widow spider; a savvy, strutting walking stick; a male ladybug outraged that every insect assumes he's a she; twin, argumentative Hungarian pillbugs; a German caterpillar impatient to metamorphose; a haughty praying-mantis magician; and other wondrous insects.

A varied and effective group of actors supply the voices, from Phyllis Diller as Queen Ana to Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Princess Atta and Bonnie Hunt as Rosie the spider. Since every great myth needs a worthy protagonist and a harrowing threat, Flik and Hopper anchor the tale. Dave Foley gives Flik an appropriately nervous, excitable young voice, and Kevin Spacey brings the perfect braggadocio and arrogant bluff to the villainous Hopper.

The soundtrack takes on added importance in animated films, and 10-time Academy Award nominee Randy Newman blends an eclectic mix of great sound effects (especially for grasshoppers) and lyrical jazz, blues, western and romantic music into a harmonic whole. His concluding song, "The Time of Your Life," ought to send viewers out humming and happy. Anyone who has also had the pleasure of seeing Microcosmos will feel right at home with this bug's-eye view of the world. Every child from 5 to 95 should enjoy the lilliputian drama and the refreshing ingenuity.

-- Diane Carson

HOME FRIES
Directed by Dean Parisot

Comedy gets fresh ingredients and imaginative chefs in Home Fries. Filmmakers mix sweet zaniness with pungent darkness to create a distinctive American continued on next pageconitnued form previous pagedish. This tale of Anywhere, U.S.A., offers plenty of laughs, a clear look at family pathology and -- as comedy must -- positive change in at least one character.

Like any good comedy, Home Fries builds on the foundation of an excellent script. Writer Vince Gilligan should rejoice in the whole edifice. Barry Levinson and Lawrence Kasdan, veteran writer/directors, helped produce the film. Music by Rachel Portman adds thoughtful counterpoint. The whole production shows thought, competence and coherence. Director Dean Parisot helps a fine cast make real magic.

Drew Barrymore shows a new side of her huge talent as Sally, who works the drive-through window at the local Burger-Matic. This fast-food restaurant could inhabit almost any town of 3,000-5,000; it's on the edge of settlement, on cheap land, toward the highway. The Burger-Matic's attempts at architectural modernity distinguish it from the grim utilitarianism of other typically American buildings nearby. It's as if it were alien even to think about beauty -- or possibly sinful. Sally might embody sin for such builders. Her warmth and beauty might seem extravagant. And Sally's sin is otherwise manifest: She is hugely pregnant by a married man who lied to her about his marital status.

Home Fries opens with the father, Henry Lever (Chris Ellis), pleading with Sally at the drive-through window. No, she won't see him. We blame him less, perhaps, when we meet the wife (Catherine O'Hara), a truly frightening person. She has tried her best to warp her grown sons from a previous marriage. With Angus (Jake Busey), she has completely succeeded; the film's comedic drama partly hinges on whether the other son, Dorian (Luke Wilson), can break free.

Other actors include some fabulous Cobra helicopters and a marvelous set at a tobacco warehouse. Burger-Matic's manager and workers make a convincing "family" ensemble. The great Shelley Duvall plays Sally's mother, who cheerfully keeps her family together in a dirt-poor shack, a contrast to the middle-class Lever house. Perhaps it's fair to say that each household has its craziness, but even Sally's alcoholic father doesn't match Mrs. Lever. Her chilling plots for revenge drive much of Home Fries' plot.

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