November 9, 2007

Bee Movie (11/09/07)

Lettergrade: D

I thought the ads looked kinda sucky, but the few reviews I came into contact with for Jerry Seinfeld's Bee Movie were generally very positive. More than that, though, was the glowing word-of-mouth: "You like Seinfeld, don't you?" Who doesn't? "It's like they took the humor from the show, but adapted it for cartoon bees!" Well, that's a hell of an endorsement, so we decided to roll the dice. A few minutes into the movie, however, I had the distinct feeling that we were fucked.

Actually, that's being a little harsh... a more measured thing to say is that, contrary to the hype, Bee Movie is not too unlike many other Dreamworks CG animated pictures that have been in theaters in recent years... Over The Hedge, Shark Tale, Madagascar, et al. Movies in which celebrity personalities are anthropomorphized onto various members of the animal kingdom and sent off for adventure. Generally speaking, they're also the kind of thing that I, a big fan of imaginative children's entertainment, have little interest in seeing. I should come clean here and admit that I never, in fact, saw the first two movies on the above list, but my six year-old cousin saw Madagascar in the theater and assures me that it's "pretty stupid."

And Bee Movie isn't "stupid," but it's also not as inventive or as subversive as the witty advertisements would have you believe. I think a key aspect of why this is not really the best use of Seinfeld's talent is that his humor often centers around spontaneity (or at least the appearance of it). Animation is about the least spontaneous filmed media that there is, and additionally it does not allow Jerry to sarcastically mug through a scene the way he could on his NBC show. I guess with that in mind, the film's main way of trying to keep the proceedings feeling extemporaneous is by instituting a series of bizarre and radical plot shifts which, at times, seriously brought my brain to a screeching halt.

The initial premise, for example, has more in common with 1998's Antz (which featured the voice of Woody Allen and was one of Dreamworks' first CG movies) than anything else in the Dreamworks catalogue. Both films assign the voice and mannerisms of its beloved New York Jewish comedian to young neurotic insects struggling to find mass acceptance in rigid societies. When the time comes for the [bee/ant] to choose his place among the [hive/colony], he decides to venture out of the [hive/hole] for a [meaningful/heart-warming] adventure of discovery.

Seinfeld's character (the somewhat unenthusiastically named Barry B. Benson) explores NYC, and winds up in a Central Park-adjacent apartment occupied by a florist voiced by Renée Zellweger. The movie doesn't get into how a florist can afford a penthouse apartment with a Central Park view, but if you're going to get hung up on that kind of shit, maybe a talking bee picture isn't right for you to begin with. Anyway, in true movie fashion, the florist is dating a real dickhead (Patrick Warburton), who is about to swat Barry into oblivion before Zellweger steps in. Barry feels a debt of gratitude, and decides to violate one of the primary rules of Bee Society: Using English, he verbally thanks his rescuer.

A bee striking up a vaguely romantic relationship with a human is not all that outlandish within the realm of the fairy-tale movie, but then things got strange:

Barry discovers, to his horror, that humans hold bees captive and harvest the honey they produce for retail purposes. This pisses him off so royally that the film abruptly becomes a courtroom parody for the next 20-25 minutes. Barry brings about an undefined lawsuit against human kind that seems to have something to do with theft and imprisonment. Although there were stern warnings at the beginning of the movie that speaking to humans is strictly forbidden, there are no repercussions when Barry appears in court and on national television to level his charges.

I'm giving a good deal away here, but the bees eventually do win their case, and THEN things get even weirder. Since the bee community now has all this reclaimed honey, they decide to stop working and no longer leave the hive to pollenate flowers, fruit trees, and all other manner of vegetation. Pretty much overnight, all the earth's pollen dependent plants dry up. The movie focuses not on the wide-spread famine or massive economic collapse that would result in such an occurrence, however, but instead on Zellweger, who tragically can no longer afford her penthouse apartment now that she has no flowers to sell. The final part of the film deals with Barry's crazy schemes to get the bees to resume their activity, so the plants will be pollenated, so Zellweger will like him again.

What's the message? I have no idea. I've gone through the trouble of describing all this, however, both in attempt to find some logic in the bizarre patchwork quality of the plot, but also to make mention of the fact that a significant portion of the film is spent dealing with an issue that is actually quite relevant to current ecological events: A significant increase in a syndrome referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder, wherein worker bees have abruptly departed their hives apparently due to some kind of orientation problem, has been recorded in North America and Western Europe since late 2006. Scientists have little understanding thus far of what's causing the disappearance - bee keeping practices, pesticides, and human activity such as radio waves and cellphone signals are all potential suspects - but if the trend continues unchecked, the end result would be something not too unlike what happens in the second half of Bee Movie: An ecosystem collapse that results in significantly fewer flowers, fruit, and vegetables for the animals on this planet to make use of.

Don't get me wrong... if the film encourages kids (or their parents) to modify their behavior in such a way that bee welfare is given more consideration, that's a wonderful thing. As it stands, however, the movie has seemingly taken on a mysterious issue that does not yet have a viable solution. I'm not entirely convinced that Bee Movie is really trying to make some sort of environmental statement at its core, but the plot point seems a little too timely to be entirely arbitrary. The only message that seems abundantly clear is that we humans shouldn't feel guilty about taking honey from bees because it keeps them doing their fucking job.

But you know, it's weird: I like animated pictures. I really do. I love many of the Pixar films, and thought that Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the WereRabbit (also a Dreamworks Animation release, although co-produced by Aardman in England) was nothing short of perfection. Is it just that these particular sorts of movies are not aimed at my demographic? Are they aimed exclusively at children and at parents while I, childless at 29, am simply not able to appreciate the appeal?

I have every respect for the time and effort that went into Bee Movie and I'm glad that people got paid for the three years or so that it probably took to make it. It's one of those things, though, where I look at the talent, artistry, and money that was involved in making a picture, and am a little sad that no one came up with an especially inspired (or even cohesive) idea for everyone to put their effort toward.

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