A film review by Craig J. Koban
2007, PG, 100 mins.
2007, PG, 100 mins.
With the voices of:
Hmmmm....Jerry Seinfeldís very first screen writing and acting gig has him...playing a bee.
Okay. Maybe this was not the manner that I envisioned the world famous comedian and sitcom star making his transition to the silver screen, but the new Dreamworks animated film, BEE MOVIE, does not in any way impede nor erode his sharp and sarcastic comic sensibilities.
That's a blessing in disguise, in a way.
It could be said that this film was a long time in the coming for the comedianís fans, seeing as he has remained largely away from the limelight since his astronomically popular sitcom went off the air. Interestingly, he did not follow the path that is beset by many other sitcom stars and did not immediately jump into films.
In 1998 he went on tour and did stand-up and performed new material in clubs around the globe. He also wrote a few books and appeared on talk shows, perhaps his most memorable appearance had to be when he appeared on John Stewartís THE DAILY SHOW. When the host asked him what he would change his name to if he had to for the sake of his career, Seinfeld drolly remarked, "Well, I would keep my last name, so as not to offend my parents, so then I would have to go with Jesus."
Itís expertly timed zingers like that has made Seinfeldís comedy so razor sharp and hilarious. Despite the fact that he does not assume human form in BEE MOVIE, he nevertheless plays a character that maintains his acerbic wit and timing. This most likely can be attributed to the fact that Seinfeld not only provides his voice talent in the film, but he also produced and co-wrote the screenplay for the film. Thankfully, the filmís bizarre otherworldliness does not misuse the comedianís talents. In a way, the very presence of Seinfeld is what makes the animated comedy work. BEE MOVIE is refreshingly subversive and satiric with its underlining material and it does not resort to endless pop culture references that seems to have been done to death in other animated films. The film is also genuinely silly and wickedly energetic and it is the hybrid of Seinfeldís comic tenacity and the movieís goofy and oddball appeal that makes it shine.
Now, it seems like just about every species in the world has been the subject of computer animated films as of late, not to mention the fact that we have had several works that have focused on the insect world (A BUGíS LIFE, ANTZ, and most recently, THE ANT BULLY). It seems like bees were the next natural choice. Seinfeld voices the wonderfully named Barry Bee Benson, a typical bee that - at first - seems content with his life in the hive. Life basically consists of being born, living for a little while, going through and intensely short education, and then being sent off to work making honey...for the rest of his life!
Early in the film Barry and his best bee buddy, Adam (Matthew Broderick), go through an insanely quick graduation ceremony and then are quickly whisked away on a tour of their future jobs. When it appears that the work involved is not what he expected, he pleads with the guide, "Are you going to work us to death?" The guide responds dryly, "We certainly hope so."
This will not do for Barry. He sees his that as something beyond complacency and monotonous work. What he really wants to do is travel. I mean, so far all the excitement that he has had is school (which only lasts days) and then he is told that he will have to work for the rest of his life without a chance of a vacation...that would make any bug go...well...buggy.
So, Barry has an inspired idea: He decides to hitch a ride with fellow pollen jockeys (who dress in bee military fatigues and are there to pollinate on the outside world). As he flies into the unknown city world he is astounded by all of the free space. He does manage to have a few near death experiences. One of the funnier moments in the film has Barry and the pollen jockeys land on a tennis court, perplexed about the gigantic, foreign looking flowers that are actually tennis balls. Barry, of course, latches himself on to one, just as it is picked up by a human for a game.
Itís a close call for Barry, but we also quickly learn that there is another thing that bees are forbidden to do on the outside, and that is to speak to humans...period. Predictably, the rebel in Barry does not follow this bee law. After landing in a humanís home and being nearly being killed by a bully named Ken (Patrick Warburton), he is rescued by a noble-minded florist named Vanessa (Renee Zellweger).
Itís here where the film gets a bit...weird. It seems that Barry develops an odd attraction to the human woman and decides to approach and thank her for her help, which would be directly compromise on of the biggest bee laws. When he does approach Vanessa she is shocked to discover that she can actually understand him. The two then strike up a very peculiar friendship. Things seem great for Barry, that is until he stumbles on something that drastically alters his perceptions of humanity.
At one point Barry visits the supermarket to find out that - gasp! - humans are selling honey that bees make for huge profits (in the filmís best sight gag, Barry is mortified to see that Ray Liotta has his own brand of honey). This shocks Barry, but he later discovers to his horror that his brothers and sisters are tortured in Honey Farms and are sprayed with smoking machines to rob them of honey.
It is here where the film gets really, really weird.
Fed up with humanity, Barry does what any self-righteous crusading bee would do: He takes mankind to court and decides to sue the world for unlawful honey production. These sections of the film are perhaps the most inspired and funny, as we see the court room segregated (one side has humans, the others has bee colonies). Barry serves as a prosecutor and tries to prove his case by bringing some celebrities to the stand that seem to be profiting off of the bee way of life. Hilariously, Barry chastises Sting (yes, that one) for using a stage name that hints at bees instead of using his real name (however, Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner does not have the same zeal) and in the filmís single funniest exchange, he brings Ray Liotta to the stand and berates him to explain how he profits from beesí honey. At one point he turns to the jury and cries, "Heís not a good fella...heís a bad fella!"
The courtroom sequences seem to be in the grand tradition of Glen Larsonís FAR SIDE comic strips; itís sort of beyond surreal and absurdly comical. At least the humans don't sit down on their buts without putting up a fight. The judge (voiced by Oprah Winfrey) keeps things as civil as possible, but the defense attorney that has the Herculean task of defending humanity, Layton T. Montgomery (voiced with wicked zeal and passion by John Goodman), really has it out for the bees. The whole court case is a droll and sassy satire of the legal system, and it also provides a classic joke about lawyers. Chris Rock plays a mosquito named Mooseblood who helps Barry, and when someone asks him why he became a lawyer, he responds, "I was already a bloodsucking parasite, so all I needed was the briefcase."
The jokes and cagey one liners donít reside completely with the court scenes. The film also has a lot of other witty sight gags (one sequence is a very subtle and sly spoof of a famous sequence from THE GRADUATE), not to mention that the screenplay has considerable comic mileage playing up the daily lives of bees for humorous effect (like, for example, is it okay to be attracted to another female bee when she is, in actuality, really related to you?). I also liked one scene where Hank, after stinging the human defense attorney, is rushed to a hospital and is given a very tiny IV of honey. There is also some commentary as to why Bees drive around in little cars in the hive. When Vanessa seems perplexed by this and asks Barry why bees just donít fly everywhere, he simply responds, "Because flying is tiring. Why donít humans just run everywhere instead of driving?"
BEE MOVIE is certainly not the finest looking animated film of recent memory. It has a slick and polished sheen to it and it does find inspiration and scope in some of its visuals, but it is dwarfed in comparison to the lush palette of RATATOUILLE and even the third SHREK film. Yet, visually arresting eye candy is not the point with BEE MOVIE, as it atypically focuses more on dialogue and comedy than it does the images. Clearly, this could make a lot of young tykes restless in their seats, but for the rest of us adults I found BEE MOVIE consistently funny and a jolly riot. At the heart of the film is Seinfeld - as a cute little bee - that still harbors the comedian's semi-cynical and wondrously observant eye for the ordinary at its core. Itís really hard not to be taken in by BEE MOVIEíS whimsical energy and dry sarcasm. As the second coming of Seinfeld, itís certainly is a funny and satisfying achievement.