A Bug's Life and Colonialism
A Bug's Life is a 1998 Disney-Pixar film that was loosely based on the Aesop fable The Ant and the Grasshopper.
It's no secret that this film was in direct competition with the Dreamworks film Antz, so after watching Antz last month, I realized I might as well watch A Bug's Life as well and see if it still lives up to the high praise I gave it as a child.
I watched the film again for the first time in many years, and my adult's brain was surprised to recognize the quite obvious anti-imperialism message in the plot.
The ants work hard to pick food, and instead of enjoying the fruits of their own labor, they are expected to offer their food to the bigger, stronger, and quite menacing grasshoppers.
The grasshoppers do nothing in the meantime, aside from drinking and screwing around while enjoying what is basically slave labor (but, of course, the ants are the lazy and inferior ones). At the end of the season, they expect the ants to give them all the food they picked on the premise that grasshoppers are just superior like that and deserve to be served by the inferior below-dirt ants.
This is classic "might is right" ideology. Because the ants don't fight back, bullies like Hopper would insist that they are inferior and "deserve" what is happening to them, that it must be the natural order of things, and they are only doing what was meant to be done.
This sort of "logic" only exists to justify assholery. In reality, pushing people around and stealing their stuff is wrong. It's wrong in this children's film, and it's just as wrong in real life.
After generations of being bullied and oppressed, Flik (Dave Foley) is the only ant among his downtrodden brethren who seeks to improve their lives. He is an inventor and an innovator, but at the same time, is presented as a nerdy screw up.
As much as I love Antz, I always felt Flik was a better protagonist than Z.
Flik wanted to improve life for his people and set out to find help. In the beginning, he doesn't believe his people are strong enough to fight for freedom on their own. He learns otherwise after a series of trials forces the ants to recognize their own worth, and with the help of a bunch of actors who they mistook for warriors, the ants succeed in freeing themselves of the grasshoppers.
It's basically a plot ripped right out of Galaxy Quest (except A Bug's Life came out the year before. Go figure).
Z, on the other hand, has no interest in improving life for his people, as everyone around him seems pretty happy living in a totalitarian society. So his initial goal is to help himself by running away to Insectopia (the most ridiculous name, like, ever), and it isn't until he learns about the general's dark plan that he returns to help his people.
So I guess I like Flik because he's proactive and not reactive.
That said, I always liked Princess Bala from Antz much better than Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus).
Princess Atta was a neurotic mess who was perfectly content to remain submissive to the grasshoppers. The thought never crossed her mind to stand up to them or be an example of dignity and strength to her people. Instead, she scrambled to please a bunch of jerks who routinely stole food out of her people's mouths and bullied and beat them to boot.
On top of that, it makes no sense that Flik is in love with her. She is a weak person with low self-esteem, completely lacking confidence, and is also mean to Flik. She sends him out into the dangerous world, where he could easily die, just to be rid of him. She later apologizes for being mean, but the fact that Flik was in love with her was -- sorry to use an annoying buzzword -- toxic.
Why the heck did Flik love Atta? Because she was pretty? Because she was slightly more purple than everyone else? Because this is a Disney film and the protagonist is thus required to have a love interest? Why?
Sadly enough, Atta's little sister is a better princess than her, and she's a child.
Dot (Hayden Panettiere) displays constant bravery and intelligence throughout the film. She also recognizes the brilliance and potential in Flik, and in the beginning, is the only one willing to believe in him.
She was such a strong character, she probably could have carried the movie herself as the protagonist. But this is Pixar we're talking about. They don't believe in female protagonists. At least they didn't back then. These days they make the effort in the name of not looking sexist, I guess.
Meanwhile, the queen ant (Phyllis Diller) -- while a great comedic relief -- is also grossly complacent in the subjugation of her people. She is disgustingly jolly and bears no resentment for the grasshoppers at all! Her "training" of Atta consists of ensuring her that submitting to grasshopper tyranny is just a way of life and that she should relax and accept it.
Hopper (Kevin Spacey), the main antagonist, is right about one thing: people are defined by their leadership. Shit trickles down, as the saying goes. Because the queen and Atta are such crappy leaders, the rest of the ants just fall in line with them, and as a result, they are doomed to oppression and lifelong slavery.
Hopper is presented as the only grasshopper smart enough to realize how easy it would be for the ants to rise up, if only they would snap out of their generations-long coma of submission. It would only take one ant to disrupt the nightmare into reality, and then the entire free food trip would be over for the grasshoppers.
But as Hopper says, this isn't just about food.
Hopper believes that once the ants rise up, they will subjugate and oppress the grasshoppers in return. This is what all bullies secretly fear: that their act of evil will return upon them tenfold. The reality is, if the ants had that sort of evil within them, they wouldn't be oppressed slaves in the first place.
People in power often get that power by doing not-so-nice things.
One thing the movie gets wrong about colonialism is that it singles out Hopper as the only grasshopper who really wants to oppress the ants. In reality, colonization is a group-effort. Everyone involved is down with it. If they weren't, they wouldn't be hanging out with such a scummy leader in the first place. (Imagine someone trying to say Hitler's followers were innocent and that they were just reacting to their leader.)
While shit does indeed trickle down, each person is still responsible for her actions. So the ants are individually responsible for their complacency in being oppressed, just as the grasshoppers are individually responsible for choosing to go along with oppressing an entire group of people.
Each grasshopper is responsible for choosing to participate. They are not "innocent" and victims of colonization were not conquered by one mustache-twirly villain. That goes for children's films and real life.
During the final stages of the film, Hopper continues to brainwash the ants into subjugation:
"You piece of dirt! No, I’m wrong. You’re lower than dirt. You’re an ant! Let this be a lesson to all you ants. Ideas are very dangerous things. You are mindless, soil-shoving losers, put on this Earth to serve us!"
The fact is, people are very easily manipulated. Keep telling someone their entire life that they are an ugly and inferior loser, and they will believe it. It's the way our brains our programmed. This is why name-calling and putting people down is considered emotional abuse. This is also why slurs are bad and wrong and people are outraged when they are used.
Words have historically been used to keep entire groups of people in their place. We as humans are easily, easily manipulated with words. There is real truth behind the phrase "words are power," and there is evidence of this truth in the way people respond to the media, speeches, books, plays, and films.
It's scary how easy it is to brainwash people, even an entire people, for generations upon generations.
My favorite part of the film is when Flik takes a beating in front of the entire colony. Instead of staying down, he gets back up, puffs out his chest, and defiantly hurls the truth in Hopper's face:
"You’re wrong, Hopper. Ants are not meant to serve grasshoppers! I’ve seen these ants do great things. And year after year, they somehow manage to pick food for themselves and you. So who is the weaker species? Ants don’t serve grasshoppers. It’s you who need us. We’re a lot stronger than you say we are. And you know it, don’t you?"
Flik refuses to be broken, refuses to have his dignity taken from him, and is even brave enough to shout the truth. As a child watching this, I recognized the bravery, strength, and defiance in this little ant and I admired it.
Apparently, Atta did too, because she finally grows a spine and leaps in to protect Flik when Hopper tries to kill him.Hopper is so startled to see Atta defying him that he smiles and says in amusement, "Well. Princess."
Atta's reply is awesome,
"You see, Hopper, Nature has a certain order. The ants pick the food, the ants keep the food and the grasshoppers leave!"
Having woken from the nightmare of subjugation, the rest of the ants finally recognize their own power, worth, and strength, and band together to drive out the grasshoppers.
It's a pretty great piece of writing, and a great lesson for children.
In the end, the ants free themselves and go on to rule themselves in peace. Atta becomes queen -- having finally learned to behave like one -- and everything is all right again on Ant Island.
When I was a kid, I saw this movie as little more than a shaming of bullies and bad guys. Now I see it as a covert way of teaching children about history and how not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
In that light, it suddenly makes sense why A Bug's Life never quite reached icon-status the way Toy Story did. People, first and foremost, hate stories that lecture them. So while the movie seemed harmless to children, it probably annoyed adults, who have a romanticized (see: delusional) view of American history.
A Bug's Life is an American film, and America is a country literally founded on the evils of colonization and slavery. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous. But acknowledging the fact seems to anger and disturb people, who feel they and their ancestors are under attack.
As Liara says in the video game Mass Effect, the past should be acknowledged, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. (Yes. I just quoted a video game character. If the fact that I review old children's films hasn't made it obvious yet, I am a huge nerd.)
As human beings, we should not be afraid to examine the past. We should be learning from it, improving, and ever-evolving. As it is, America is still not a country where power is shared equally among races and sexes and sexualities.
We still have a long way to go before America is anything like Ant Island.
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