The Theory of Chaos

Monday, December 24, 2007


Full review behind the jump

Bee Movie

: Steve Hickner & Simon J. Smith
: Jerry Seinfeld and Spike Feresten & Barry Marder & Andy Robin
: Jerry Seinfeld, Christina Steinberg
Featuring the Vocal Talents of
: Jerry Seinfeld, Renée Zellweger, Matthew Broderick, Patrick Warburton, John Goodman, Chris Rock, Kathy Bates, Barry Levinson

I remember an episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s mega-hit sitcom where circumstances conspired to put him in front of an audience of elementary-school kids. His well of humor completely dried up, and he was reduced to asking why they call it homework, since you’re not working on your home.

He should have remembered the lesson – kids don’t do ironic distance. Seinfeld’s style of comedy depends on the application of dry logic to the common absurdities of grown-up life, neither of which children have a deep understanding of. And even here in the animated
Bee Movie, where you can’t see his face, you can hear that archness in his voice, that instinct to deflect attention away from himself and on to whatever thing has him bemused at the moment.

This is a movie with a number of good ideas for jokes but no cohesion with regards to how to deliver them, and a distressing lack of artistry in its presentation. It’s been a long time since I saw an animated feature that cost so much money yet seemed to care so little about how it looked. A good family movie can enrapture the kids while rewarding the adults for coming along and paying attention. I’m sure that kids will pay attention simply because it is bright and antic and untaxing to their brains, but if there are children out there with a keen interest in satire about class-action lawsuits and the ennui of career immobility, I’ve yet to meet them.

Seinfeld plays Barry B. Benson, who recently matriculated from bee school and is about to embark on the one career allowed to bees – making honey. When he shows up for his first day at Honex (“a division of Honesco, part of the Hexagon Group”), he will pick his assignment and work it with no vacation until his death. Distressed that he’s about to surrender his only chit of free will, he procrastinates about joining the workforce, and mopes at home in a style visually-reminiscent of that classic of children’s cinema – The Graduate.

Eventually he schemes his way onto the crew of “Pollen Jockeys” who get to adventure outside the hive, gather raw materials for the honey, and see to the plant life of the Earth by scattering their genetic material hither and yon. Bees play an enormously important role in our ecosystem, and this movie does charmingly dramatize this.

But an accident or two or three separates Barry from the swarm and he ends up in the apartment of florist Vanessa (Renee Zellweger), who saves him from a boot-squashing. Barry is smitten, and breaks one of the sacred rules of bee-dom by speaking to her. Her reaction resembles a drunk trying to play Pictionary – the way the animators match Vanessa’s “performance” to the expressive tics of Renee Zellweger’s breathy and playful voice is one of the movie’s strongest points, the characters otherwise have a forgettable look to them.

Eventually Barry discovers that humankind has been taking all that honey the bees make for itself, and I laughed at the over-the-top devilishness of the beekeepers, chortling as they gas their slaves into submission. Barry responds like any offended party in today’s society: he fronts a class-action lawsuit. This gives John Goodman prime space to devote his booming vocal chords to the old country lawyah routine as the counsel for the honey manufacturers, and Barry’s vendetta against hive-smashing bears claims a wicked casualty.

And while there’s a mechanical cause-and-effect clicking away here within the plot, it rarely grew beyond the scope of wryly-amusing situation. I could resort to listing lines of dialogue that made me laugh, like many of those exclaimed by Vanessa’s anguished lunkhead boyfriend Ken (Patrick Warburton). But what is it that sums up those successful jokes except that, as is Seinfeld’s trademark, they riff on the peculiar fixations and surprising gullibility of the modern urban dweller? Vanessa’s eagerness to immediately lobby against the human race on behalf of an insect that makes clever conversation over wine is rather appalling, if you think about it.

Instead of being a movie about a young man going through a dynamic adventure during which he discovers his purpose, Bee Movie keeps feeling like a movie about jokes, and not a great one to look at, either. We’re spoiled these days by the high-quality of feature animation, and so I find myself wanting the pleasure of design, that enticing color and texture even the disappointing Shrek the Third had, where I had the childlike urge to reach out and touch something on the screen. When Barry zooms through the sky, it doesn’t feel transcendent. When crisis threatens, it doesn’t feel consequential. When he tries to appeal to our hearts, he doesn’t sound sincere.

Dreamworks Animation has positioned itself perfectly to be the Looney Tunes to Pixar’s Mickey Mouse – contemporary and quick, with a sassier attitude and emphasis on style and pacing over polish, compared to the warmth and artistry of their all-audiences rival. But with under-imagined trifles like Bee Movie, it’s as if they’ve ceded most of their share of the battlefield, and are content simply with volume of product. This is imitation amusement, the equivalent of the generic-brand cereal. We know the difference, especially the kids.


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