Nicholas C. Breiner
Battle of the Bugs
The year is 1998. The movie is about ants. The question is, which movie is it? Dreamworks released Antz and Pixar released A Bug’s Life within 6 weeks of each other. Both films have computer-animated worker ants as heroes, saving their colony and falling for a princess in the process. Why did two separate companies come out with two similar movies though? The answer is in a feud between Disney, mainly Michael Eisner CEO at the time, and Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Who is Jeffrey Katzenberg? He became well known for his tenure as chairman of Walt Disney Studios from 1984 to 1994, the time period known as the Disney renaissance. Katzenberg produced some of its biggest hits, including The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994).
I’ve heard different stories as to why Katzenberg and Disney separated. I’ve heard that Eisner fired him and I’ve heard that when Katzenberg didn’t get a promotion, and left the company. Regardless of the reason, Katzenberg left with bad blood. He founded Dreamworks animation studios and decided right then and there that Dreamworks had to release their bug movie before Pixar did.
Why bugs? The rigidity of toys in Toy Story translated well through 3-D computer animation. In fact, Toy Story’s graphics still stand up today…. Except for the people. Seriously, Andy’s sister Molly is a nightmare but hey it was 1994 and any artist will tell you that people are harder to draw than toys.
For the next successful artistic endeavor in animation, Pixar, and Dreamworks, decided to go with another rigid-like set of characters. BUGS! Exoskeletons made the perfect model for animators to practice animating life-like, but not too life-like, characters.
Both Eisner and Katzenberg agree that the storyline originated at Disney. Back in the 80’s Katzenberg was trying to shake up Disney by asking everyone from janitors to animators to pitch feature film ideas. According to Katzenberg, one idea pitched in ’92 was about a group of army ants who were part of a pacifist military. While the idea wasn’t greenlit, it always stuck with Katzenberg.
Katzenberg was curious about what Pixar was doing next and Lasseter and co-director Andrew Stanton gladly shared their detailed plans for Bugs. But around this point, the producer had a massive falling-out with Disney CEO Michael Eisner and left the company. With Katzenberg at Dreamworks, he was bound and determined to beat Eisner. Dreamworks animators worked day and night (no exaggeration) on the Antz film so that Dreamworks could release their film first. The hope was that it would appear that Disney was the copycat. While Antz was an initial success, 6 weeks later, everyone was off to see Disney’s newest creation, Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, and the proof was in the box office earnings. Antz grossed 171.8 million USD and A Bug’s Life grossed 363.3 million USD.
The film isn’t a stand-out in Pixar’s impressive collection. However, it’s one of my favorites. IMDB states, “Flik (Dave Foley) is an inventive ant who's always messing things up for his colony. His latest mishap was destroying the food stores that were supposed to be used to pay off grasshopper Hopper (Kevin Spacey). Now the strong-arming insect is demanding that the ants gather double the food -- or face annihilation. To avert disaster, Flik goes on a journey to recruit fighters to defend the colony. When he meets a band of high-flying circus insects, he thinks he's found his salvation.”
The reason I love the film is because it proves that the most dangerous phrase in the English language is, “but we’ve always done it this way”. Flik strives to work smarter and not harder. He wants to invent things to help the colony. While he has a few mishaps, in the end Flik and his friends work together and learn that innovation isn’t scary and that if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything. How very Disney indeed.