Ranked lists of Pixar’s 24 films are fixtures of the internet. Within these lists — and there are many — you will almost always find Pixar’s second feature, A Bug’s Life (1998), among the duds. The cartoon holds the 16th spot on Rotten Tomatoes’ definitive tally of the studio’s films. Placing A Bug’s Life 18th, Thrillist calls the movie a “straight adventure” that “doesn’t glow like Pixar’s emotionally meaty movies.” Vulture puts the film in 19th place, deeming it a “charming, ultimately harmless little tale.”
Most Pixar lists echo these same criticisms, focussing on A Bug’s Life’s outdated animation and simple, less “meaty” story. But while the first critique holds true — everything about computer animation has improved since the late ‘90s, from rendering to lighting — the second has always puzzled me. Based on Aesop’s “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” A Bug’s Life is, as Vulture puts it, charming. But it’s also full of hidden depths and far from harmless. Dreamed up at the famous 1994 Pixar lunch where John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Joe Ranft, and Pete Docter also sketched out Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and Wall-E, the film is at once a story about a misfit’s struggle to fit in and a yarn about . . . collective organizing. Whatever Pixar’s intentions, and despite critics’ hang-ups, A Bug’s Life offers viewers a powerful anti-capitalist message.
The movie centers on a colony of ants. More specifically, it focuses on colony member Flik (Dave Foley), a misfit who Owen Gleiberman called a “renegade-nerd hero” in his 1998 review for Entertainment Weekly. As an ant — an insect heavily associated with groupthink — Flik frequently commits the worst offense possible: going against the grain (literally). Governed by an elderly Queen (Phyllis Diller) and her daughter, the nervous Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), the colony has a routine: Every summer, they give a large portion of their food to a group of grasshoppers, led by the sinister Hopper (Kevin Spacey, in what would prove to be a fittingly sinister role), as payment for being left alone. Like the Queen says, “They come, they eat, they leave. That’s our lot in life.” But when one of Flik’s inventions knocks over the pile of grain on the offering stone for the grasshoppers, they have to pay the price.
Although Flik attempts to stand up to Hopper, the ants are forced to recollect double the amount of food and risk going hungry during the winter. On behalf of the colony and “oppressed ants everywhere,” Flik sets off to find “warrior bugs” — à la Seven Samurai — to fight the grasshoppers while the rest of the ants get to work. Flik accidentally recruits a band of circus bugs, thinking they are fighters, and hijinks ensue. In the end, however, the ants realize they don’t need outside help to ward off the grasshoppers. They have that power themselves.
From the jump, it’s easy to view A Bug’s Life as an exploration of class struggle. When Hopper, angry to find no food waiting for him, busts through the ceiling of the anthill, he yells, “Where’s my food?” He bemoans being forced to come down to the ants’ level and tells them they’re forgetting their place. “The ants pick the food. The grasshoppers eat the food,” Hopper condescends. The workers produce the goods. The 1% take the profits.
When Flik gets to the city to hunt for help, this buggy world — and the class dynamics therein — are further fleshed out. The enterprising ant bumps into a disabled bug begging for money; its sign reads “Kid pulled my wings off.” He also encounters a centipede miming for cash. The ants’ struggle is further mirrored by the circus bugs’ abysmal working conditions: Exploited by greedy ringmaster P.T. Flea (John Ratzenberger, who has lent his voice to nearly every Pixar film) and heckled by belligerent audience members, the actors soon lose their jobs.
There’s no indication the writers set out to make a Marxist parable with A Bug’s Life. In fact, quite the opposite. In the early 90s, Pixar, then more a software company than an animation studio, planned its IPO after the release of Toy Story, banking on the success of the Disney-backed film. And, of course, it was a hit — the groundbreaking cartoon was the third-highest grossing movie of 1995. Pixar’s IPO the same year made majority shareholder Steve Jobs a billionaire (yes, for the first time) and marked the beginning of the company’s domination of the animation industry.
On the brink of unimaginable success and on the heels of a profitable IPO that concentrated wealth (primarily) into the hands of one man, releasing a movie about the liberation of the working class wouldn’t seem to be in Pixar’s best interest. But, perhaps unintentionally, that’s what they did.
The personal and political leanings of the core team working on A Bug’s Life further complicate the film’s socialist cred. When audiences recognize radical themes in Pixar’s movies, company execs tend to claim they exist by happenstance. In a 2008 interview with Collider about Wall-E, for instance, Stanton said his intention was not to create a movie with a “political bent” even though it’s widely deemed Pixar’s most political film. (Observer reached out to Stanton, but he declined a request for comment.) And given Lasseter’s history of workplace sexual misconduct, it would be surprising to learn he intended for A Bug’s Life to be a film about workers rising up against exploitation.
Whatever the creators’ intentions may have been, the depictions of the power of collective organizing become even more explicit as the movie continues.
In a scene set on enemy turf, Hopper offers his fellow grasshoppers — and the audience — greater insight into his strategy to subjugate the ants. The grasshoppers live in excess in a desert oasis (a sombrero), complete with jet skiing, a mariachi band, and grain on tap. When Hopper’s brother, Molt (Richard Kind), suggests the grasshoppers skip going back to ant island this year because they have more than enough food, Hopper conducts a thought experiment.
He mentions Flik, saying, “There was that ant who stood up to me.” One of his lackeys laughingly responds, “It was just one ant.” Hopper begins throwing grains at the other grasshoppers, pretending they’re ants to demonstrate how a single ant, like a single grain, can’t hurt a grasshopper. But then, he removes the nozzle on the tap, unleashing an avalanche of seeds that bury some of his thugs. “You let one ant stand up to us, then they all might stand up.” Hopper explains. “Those puny, little ants outnumber us 100 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.” Sounds like something a billionaire might say behind closed doors.
What Hopper knows, and the ants are about to discover, is that the true power lies with the workers. At the end of the movie, Flik develops class consciousness, which, just as Marxist theory describes, allows him and his ant comrades to rise up. During the film’s climax, Hopper beats the renegade ant into submission, trying to quell any sparks of rebellion. But Flik continues to defy the grasshopper. “Year after year, [the ants] pick food for themselves and you,” he cries. “So who’s the weaker species?” In front of the whole ant colony, he yells, “It’s not ants who serve grasshoppers. It’s you who need us.” This understanding spreads to his fellow ants, who finally revolt and take back what’s theirs. Sounds like a page straight out of The Communist Manifesto.
As for Hopper? In a brutal move, Pixar literally kills off the antagonist. He’s eaten by a bird — metaphorically guillotined, if you will.
Critics who write off A Bug’s Life focus on the surface-level plot about Flik’s individual perseverance and the circus bugs’ comic relief. But under this palatable veneer is a story about workers’ rights. Who should own the means of production and reap the benefits? According to this cartoon, the workers.
In the 23 years since A Bug’s Life’s release, wealth inequality in America has reached Gilded Age levels. According to Lowell Ricketts, data scientist at the Institute for Economic Equity at the Federal Bank of St. Louis, the top 1% held nearly 29% of total household wealth in the U.S. in 1998. The bottom 50% held just over 3%. As of 2021, the top 1% hold over 32% of household wealth, and the bottom 50% hold just over 2%. Data analyzed by UC Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez indicates that the top 0.1% made 148 times what the bottom 90% earned in 1998. Twenty years later, the income of the top 0.1% was 196 times greater than that of the bottom 90%. Interestingly, according to Inequality.org, the CEO-worker pay gap was worse in 1998 than it is today. Right before the peak of the dot-com bubble, CEOs made 455 times more than the average worker. In 2019, they made 264 times more.
During the pandemic this wealth disparity has only increased. American billionaires added over $2 trillion to their fortunes, yet 20 million adults still go hungry each week. This radical cartoon about bugs organizing and fighting back against their oppressive grasshopper overlords reminds us that it doesn’t have to be this way. Broad support for the wave of strikes sweeping the U.S. indicates the working class has gotten the memo.
During the final battle, Flik poses a question to Hopper that could just as fittingly be asked of corporate owners by striking Kellogg employees, unionizing Amazon workers, or any “Striketober” organizer: “We’re a lot stronger than you say we are. And you know that, don’t you?”
Look Again is a regular examination of the secret history and forgotten context behind popular entertainment. Sign up for Obsever’s Entertainment newsletter to receive it in your inbox.