Dir: Simon J. Smith & Steve Hickner. US. 2007. 90mins.
Misguided narrative choices prevent Bee Movie, small screen king Jerry Seinfeld's sociable freshman entry into the animated fray, from fully taking flight. Spinning the story of a young bee who discovers life outside of his hive and sues humankind over their co-option of honey, the movie establishes an identifiable personality but doesn't carve out a deep and complicated enough setting or provide enough 'wow' moments to convincingly lay claim to a franchise identity.
Colourful marketing muscle and a wide release with little in the form of animated competition will markedly benefit Bee Movie, which seems poised for a very successful autumn run. Besting last year's domestic commercial disappointment Flushed Away, which also released from distributor Paramount/DreamWorks in the same frame, seems a given. Grosses on par with or exceeding 2005's Chicken Little, which debuted to $40 million en route to $300 million-plus in worldwide receipts, are likely. Given the picture's high-profile promotion at this year's Cannes Film Festival, as well as the recent overseas track record of animated movies, international returns figure to comprise more than half of Bee Movie's theatrical gate. Ancillary value will be similarly strong.
Upon finding out that life presents him only one choice, that of an inevitable career making honey, recent college graduate Barry B. Benson (Seinfeld) jumps at the chance to join up with his hive's 'pollen jockeys' and venture out of New Hive City, a development that baffles his best friend, Adam Flayman (Matthew Broderick). Exploring Manhattan, Barry soon encounters a world beyond his wildest dreams. When caught in a rainstorm and inadvertently trapped in an apartment, Barry meets a florist named Vanessa Bloome (Renee Zellweger) who saves his life, much to the consternation of her boyfriend Ken (Patrick Warburton).
Breaking one of the cardinal rules of beedom, Barry talks to Vanessa, and a friendship soon develops. Shocked to find out that anyone can purchase honey right off the grocery store shelf, Barry sets out to stop this injustice - suing the human race for stealing the rewards of all the bees' effort, and locking antenna with a thickly-accented lawyer (John Goodman) representing the honey lobby. Once the case is resolved, however, Barry finds both New Hive City and the world at large beset by unintended consequences, and together with Vanessa he sets out to right matters.
Bee Movie's animation style is pleasant and uncluttered, most characterized by open spaces and lockstep synchronicity that help define its hive as a model of efficiency. A few fantastic outdoor flight sequences, showcasing mirrored and water-reflected perspective, give the film some much-needed thrill. The movie also trades in the same sort of secondary visual jokes ('Frisbee hits hive - internet out' reads one newspaper) that have helped make cross-generational hits out of the Shrek films as well as similarly densely packed Pixar efforts.
The difference here is that the story doesn't exert any sustained natural pull. It's no surprise that Bee Movie comes by its irreverence naturally, but the film's biggest problems are a lack of commitment to established story strands and no firm adherence to its own interior logic. While there's great attention given to specific jokes (one recurrent strand involves bees' recognition of magazine page-count, with the thickness of Italian Vogue being recognized as among the most dreaded improvised flyswatters), certain story choices (a queen bee we never see, for instance, and a cross-country trip to the Tournament of Roses parade) seem arbitrary at best and forced at worst.
Imaginativeness (clever but errant celeb cameos) and convenience (the bees' knowledge of humankind is intricate enough to file legal paperwork, but not to recognize a tennis ball) combine to run amok over cogency. In its third act, the movie's flubs and miscalculations turn especially egregious. A judge decides the outcome of Barry's lawsuit in impromptu fashion, ignoring a seated jury; Barry and Vanessa take over for an incapacitated flight crew; and pollen instantly revives entire fields of dead flowers, like sprinkled pixie dust.
Seinfeld injects some amusing signature notes of his own personality into Barry, and Chris Rock, who previously proved his animated mettle in Madagascar, provides some pop in his small role as mosquito Mooseblood, squeezing more genuine laughs out of his two scenes than other minutes-long stretches.
Other performers, however, fall prey to pendulum swings in mood and tone; Warburton's theatrical tendencies don't quite match Ken's beefcake fatuousness, and Vanessa is confusingly in and out of Barry's life, sometimes helping him with the lawsuit, sometimes not, but always oblivious to its consequences.
Co-directors Simon J. Smith (Shrek 4-D) and Steve Hickner (The Prince of Egypt) keep things moving at a crisp pace, ably aided by Rupert Gregson-Williams' score and some vibrant musical selections.
DreamWorks Animation SKG
Columbus 81 Productions
Art direction/Character design
Viz effects supervisor
Main voice cast