[2 November 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
BEE MOVIE (dir. Steve Hickner & Simon J. Smith)
While it may seem like blasphemy to say it, the comedic allure of Jerry Seinfeld remains elusive to some of us. As a stand-up, he was merely acceptable, the kind of observational whiner that’s become something of a satiric spoof all its own. His self-named sitcom, the often described “show about nothing”, has gone from must-see TV to a Borat level of hindsight marginalizing. Even his post-boob tube work has been lamentably unsatisfactory, failing to give fans and those who never bought into the hype the brazen witticisms they once loved. Now the one time small screen icon is making the leap to silver, albeit in an anthropomorphized, CGI form. Playing the title insect in Dreamworks’ Bee Movie, he hopes to draw a more sophisticated crowd to what has been, traditionally, kid-oriented fair. He may actually succeed.
After graduating from bee college, young drone Barry B. Benson and his cousin Adam Flayman can’t wait to get a job in the hive’s honey manufacturing concern. But when they learn that the career they choose will be the one they have for their whole life, Barry balks. Traveling with the Pollenjocks who work outside among the flowers, our hero gets his first taste of what it’s like in the real world. Of course, there are specific rules if a bee finds themselves among humans. Never talk to people, and never sting them. Both missteps could be fatal. When he’s almost killed by a lunkheaded yuppie named Ken, Barry is saved by Vanessa, a good natured florist. Violating the mandates of the colony, the little bug strikes up a friendship with the attractive young girl, and it’s not long before the pair is hanging out, sharing insights into their species. But when Barry learns that humans eat honey, and that his fellow insects are enslaved to make the succulent elixir, he becomes furious. In order to save his kind’s byproduct, he does the only thing a tiny pest can – he sues the honey companies in court.
While never as clever as it thinks it is, and lacking the internal logic that makes a Pixar project hum with indescribable brilliance, Bee Movie is still a witty, imaginative romp. It offers Jerry Seinfeld in “trying too hard mode” and a wealth of talent being patently underutilized. Unlike other CGI cartoons that rely on stunt casting to give its characters inferred life, Bee Movie simply lets actors do their job, with such noted names as Oprah Winfrey, Kathy Bates, and Matthew Broderick accomplishing what they can. Sure, there are moments of abject obviousness, as when the bullying, overbearing and incredibly obese lawyer starts speaking with…John Goodman’s voice, and nothing can hide Renee Zellweger’s noxious, nasal bleat (she’s a real weak link here as the human Vanessa). But any film that gets Sting to make fun of his nom deplume, or Ray Liotta to riff on his tripwire reputation, can’t be all bad.
Actually, Bee Movie is a lot like Antz except with a younger multi-millionaire mensch substituting for Woody Allen. There is the same unexceptional imagineering, the individuals behind the scenes thinking that turning nature into something corporate and mechanized means fresh and novel. As the various honey-based conglomerate logos spin by, as we see the hive as some sort of wacked out widget production palace (complete with bugs who collect the last drop of sweet stuff from the vats) the slightly sloppy shortcutting shows through. When dreams and closet dwelling creatures were explained in the masterful Monsters Inc. you never got the impression that the warehouse of doors was a half-baked notion. But the sticky amber liquid comes to represent so much in Bee Movie that the lack of magic tends to take away from the premise. Indeed, the first 20 minutes more or less tread nectar, waiting for Seinfeld’s Barry to finally fly outdoors.
Once our yellow and black hero interacts with Vanessa and begins to learn the ways of humans and the world outside the hive, Bee Movie begins to click. Granted, such surreal setpieces as a trial, an airplane emergency, and a decimated Central Park are hardly the stuff of animated hilarity, but props should be given to Seinfeld and the other writers for taking the genre in a different, more grown up direction. While it can’t match what Brad Bird has done with a similar, maturing storytelling style (as witnessed by the brilliant Incredibles and Ratatouille), Bee Movie is better than the lame brained, pop culture cribbing of Shrek. In fact, unlike the entire joke-a-thon style of the overly busy Fox CG films, there are moments of quiet elegance and sly satire here.
Of course, not everything works. Some of the more subtle jabs will fly over the heads of wee ones (the whole concept of Barry’s parents fretting over Vanessa being “Bee-ish”, the Larry King parody) and there are numerous gags that just don’t work. In fact, a good percentage of Bee Movie is not what one would call laugh out loud funny. Instead, like much of what Seinfeld represents, there is a thinking man’s level of wit here that keeps the snickers at arms length. We get what the film is driving at, and where it hopes to land its punchlines, but when an obvious Graduate riff simply dries up and blows away, we can sense a demographically concerned focus group mentality at play. Sitcom success is one thing. For Seinfeld to click as a cartoon character, there’s a whole other level of mainstream acceptance that has to go on – and Bee Movie doesn’t mess up the marketing.
And then there are elements that make no sense at all, at least from a humor standpoint. Someone needs to get Patrick Warburton a case of Decaf, stat. He reads every line of his spurned human paramour Ken as a far more hyper version of his paralyzed cop character Joe Swanson on Family Guy. He literally has no nuance to his shriek and shout performance. Chris Rock is also hampered by the PG parameter he’s locked into. When he’s talking about how hated mosquitoes are (being one of the bug’s himself), you keep waiting for the rant to go blue. Instead, it’s stifled, left incomplete and lagging behind other sequences in the film. While the action is anarchic, perfect for the ADD driven sugar frosted seat fillers, we loose much of the complexity the animators have attached to the NYC backdrop, and there’s no sense of awe-inspiring artistry here. Dreamworks isn’t making a film for the ages. This is perfectly prepared product, specifically finessed to increase shelf life and stimulate DVD revenue.
Indeed, while it will guarantee swift ticket sales and long lasting box office legs, Bee Movie is hardly what you’d call a classic. It offers its own slightly askew take on the anthropomorphic creature cartoon and frequently trips on its way down said path, but when all it said and done, it’s inoffensive and fairly entertaining. Some will say they expected more from their former small screen God and argue that the movie marginalizes his fairly obvious genius. Others knew he was a man of limited skills all along. No matter what side of the argument you find yourself on, Bee Movie is likely to disappoint. It’s not as awful as you think. It’s also not as good.