I’ve never killed bees.
— Jerry Seinfeld, Early Show (2 November 2007)
Bees, says Barry B. Benson (Jerry Seinfeld), should not, technically speaking, be able to fly. And he should know, being one. As he represents the basic gag in Bee Movie — the talking bee who will explain it all to you — Barry is both cute and annoying. As he notes the paradoxes of his airborne “fat little body” and his resilient individualism thriving in the hive, Barry sets up what looks to be Antz again, a series of adventures wherein the neurotic New Yorker finds unexpected happiness in formula.
Steve Hickner and Simon J. Smith’s film, however, takes a next step, quite beyond Barry’s fate. The way-too-high-concept Bee Movie posits that humans have much to learn from bees (and of course, vice versa). Resisting his drone-ish destiny as a drone (his post-college floating in the pool under his parents’ (Kathy Bates and Barry Levinson) anxious gazes recalls The Graduate), Barry discusses options with his best friend Adam (Matthew Broderick) (who, by the way, embraces his own destiny, signing up for an assembly line sort of job rather than imagine beyond the norm). When given an opportunity to venture outside the hive with the Special-Opsy Pollen Jocks, Barry makes the most of it. Undersized and mascotty, he loses his way during a first mission and meets and falls into an uneasy sort of “lust” with a decidedly not “beeish” girl, a Manhattan florist named Vanessa (Renée Zellweger).
As this potential trans-species romance can never be consummated, it turns instead into a peculiarly balanced relationship comprised of financial and legal accord — with a bit of ecological crisis and subsequent alignment to boot. At first, Barry’s accidentally attached to a sticky tennis ball Vanessa is hitting back and forth with her ostensible boyfriend Ken (Patrick Warburton, essentially reprising Puddy, which is fine because you can’t help but love Puddy). After a narrowly averted smooshing on the court, Barry makes his way to Vanessa’s apartment as respite from the rain (bees can’t fly in the rain: if you’ve heard it once during Seinfeld’s seemingly endless promotional tour for the film, you’ve heard it a thousand times). Here she saves him from certain smooshing by Ken’s gigantic Timberland boot and so earns the bee’s eternal gratitude. Unable to stop himself from expressing same, Barry breaks a bee prime directive and speaks to the human.
Thus begins a sweet sort of friendship, founded in slightly resized Seinfeldian jokes: Barry can’t actually sip-through-a-straw the entire cup of coffee Vanessa offers or he would, he says, “be up for the rest of my life.” He can explain details of bee life, however, which he spends a few too many minutes doing. Bees can withstand human assaults under a certain weight and force, he did once lose a cousin to Italian Vogue (lots of pages) and they also provide a crucial service to the planet, pollination.
It’s this last that grounds Bee Movie‘s lurchy third act, as Barry discovers humans have been enslaving bees on honey farms. His decision to sue the human race leads to a lengthy court process, presided over by Judge Bumbleton (Oprah Winfrey) and facing off against lowdown lawyer Layton T. Montgomery (John Goodman). This turn involves all sorts of instruction for viewers on the exploitation of bees (and an offputting stereotypey turn by a grocery store worker named Hector [David Pimentel]). A further twist reveals that such enslavement is actually a good thing for the planet (or at least, Central Park, which appears to stand in for the planet when its flora suffer the consequences of bees on vacation).
This shift in political course wouldn’t be so noticeable if the film actually had something else going for it. But aside from a brief appearance by Chris Rock as a mosquito named Mooseblood (when Barry queries about his solo lifestyle, his lack of hive support, Blood announces, “Every mosquito is on his own: you’re a mosquito, you’re in trouble”), Bee Movie offers few instances of straight-up funny comedy. Brightly colored and pretty, it is in the end another version of Seinfeld’s usual business.