A Bug’s Life: Colonial Allegory

We celebrate the fifteenth anniversary (November 23, 2013) of Disney-Pixar’s A Bug’s Life: has it stood the test of time?

On the face of it, it seems nearly impossible to humanize insects. But those creepy crawlies that barely get our attention, save for a scream or a swat, elicit onscreen not only many a chuckle but also a great deal of emotional investment from the viewer of A Bug’s Life. This in itself is perhaps the greatest achievement of Disney and Pixar’s 1998 film chronicling the life and times of an ant colony that faces an existential crisis when a band of roving grasshoppers seeks to exact tribute from their small store of food. Moviegoers were hooked by the professional animation and visual impact of the new Pixar animation. But though the fifth highest grossing Thanksgiving movie ever, fifteen years later A Bug’s Life has failed to acquire the iconic status we bestow upon many other animated films, like The Lion King (1994), Toy Story (1995), or Finding Nemo (2003). Could the biggest reason for the film’s disappearance into cultural limbo be that A Bug’s Life was always as much covert political allegory as light children’s entertainment?

The central narrative of A Bug’s Life revolves around Flik, a freethinking ant endowed with an endearing nerdiness, whose value is never truly understood by his colony. When one of his harvesting gizmos inadvertently tips the entire pile of the ants’ yearly offering to the militant grasshoppers into an abysmal puddle, Flik instantly goes from laughing stock to social pariah.  Facing retribution from the much larger and more powerful grasshoppers unless they can re-gather all the food, the ants blame Flik for all their woes. And so, when Flik offers to go off into the world to recruit even larger bugs to fight off the grasshopper army when it returns, who can refuse his plan of self-imposed banishment? To the shock of his colony, he actually returns from his trip with a small contingent of bugs that seem to possess the right military skills for a bug uprising.

In many ways, this central narrative thread weaves a picture very similar to the plot of Lagaan, an Indian film nominated in 2001 by the Academy for best foreign language film. As I re-watched A Bug’s Life, it was incredibly difficult to not think about Lagaan. Its title literally refers to the annual tax that colonial Britain exacted from hapless rajas through their peasant subjects in the form of grain, in much the same mode as the grasshoppers demand tribute in the form of the ants’ harvest. The circumstances of the tax collection are indeed also very similar: while in Lagaan the village of Champaner faces an absent monsoon that literally dries up their supply of food, the ants in A Bug’s Life face very little time and an environment with almost nothing left to harvest. The ostensible difference between these two films is that Lagaan is based on a true story, while A Bug’s Life clearly isn’t. But the similarities here suggest that while A Bug’s Life may not be a particular historical retelling, it certainly was conceived as allegorical from the start.

In a particularly memorable parallel, grasshopper chieftain Hopper exhorts his troops,

You let one ant stand up to us, then they all might stand up! Those puny little ants outnumber us a hundred to one and if they ever figure that out there goes our way of life! It’s not about food, it’s about keeping those ants in line.

This quote smacks of colonialism, in which a much larger native population is managed by a heavily militarized though less numerous imperial power (a theme that also forms the backbone of Lagaan). And what better medium for Disney to philosophize about colonialism than an ant colony? While it is easy to dismiss A Bug’s Life (as movie critic Rob Gonsalves of eFilmCritic did) as a film that lacks “a vision beyond the Disney boardroom,” the truth is that this film speaks directly to the historical struggle of the oppressed. By placing ants and grasshoppers within the context of colonialism, A Bug’s Life slyly critiques economic exploitation and military expansion.

As it inveighs against colonialism, the film simultaneously celebrates the ideals of ingenuity and democracy that defined the early American Republic. For its target American audiences, Disney-Pixar offers us a quintessentially national hero: Flik as a miniature beacon of American individualism, constantly pushing the boundaries of what an ant can aspire to do. His “seed-to-tree” speech to Dot not only injects a dose of humor (But it’s a rock—that rock will be a tree?) but also gives us a powerful metaphor for valuing potential and ingenuity over all else. The focus of the film thus shifts from the ironically monarchical structure of the colony to the self-made Flik, who saves the colony through sheer hard work and brilliance.

By the same token, the film re-introduces audiences to the beloved American institution of “The Greatest Show on Earth” when it reveals that the “warrior bugs” Flik has recruited are actually performers in a flea circus. This revelation throws a monkey wrench into the ants’ plan to fight off the grasshoppers. It also appears to dash Flik’s romantic dreams, for his prospects with Princess Atta hinge entirely on the success of his plan. Still, the flea circus performers and Flik are able to come through, using their unique set of skills to set up a frenetic and creative ending that not only showcases old-fashioned American know-how but also turns the grasshoppers’ idea of “the circle of life”—in which ants are subservient to grasshoppers—on its head.

Nearly every aspect of A Bug’s Life is a calculated piece of an allegorical puzzle. But all this begs two important questions. Why this anti-colonial analogy in 1998? And why, given the strength and importance of this analogy, did A Bug’s Life fail to reach “iconic status”?

During his early presidency, President Clinton grappled with the question of what American foreign policy would look like after the fall of the Soviet Union. Between 1993 and 1996, the administration slowly moved toward what it called “Engagement and Enlargement,” a foreign policy that stressed American leadership and primacy in a world of real-time change and information. This grand strategy was finally crystallized in February 1996, about the same time production on A Bug’s Life began.

While this strategic vision, largely predicated on the American ideals of democracy and free-market capitalism, warned against “overreaching,” it also espoused expanding the scope of American influence through virtual economic hegemony.  A Bug’s Life pushes back against this idea of growing America’s economic machismo overseas by returning to an older American version of democracy embodied by Flik and his merry band of revolutionaries. The anti-colonial analogy of A Bug’s Life thus cautions against viewing the world as a unipolar playground and argues against extending American exceptionalism into foreign affairs.

And the analogy would have been a timely one too, had things stood in November 1998 as they did in February 1996. But they didn’t. The Clinton administration soon realized that it had underestimated the amount of American power required to sustain its global vision and quickly scaled back. That the film might be critiquing contemporary events was entirely lost upon critics at the time. After 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it became increasingly clear that the worldview of A Bug’s Life had not only been forgotten but soundly rejected. In the end, this clever film was never able to realize its potential as a canny political commentary and true American classic.

But perhaps it’s not too late. As the call for a more libertarian foreign policy grows and the U.S. inches closer to withdrawing all combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014, the central metaphor of A Bug’s Life grows more and more important. In my opinion, A Bug’s Life is an even more relevant film now than it was fifteen years ago. It certainly deserves a re-watch.

Grade: A

Parth Parihar is a junior in the Mathematics department.