In 1998, DreamWorks explored the insect world in the computer-animated comedy Antz, which starred Woody Allen as a neurotic cog in the colony machinery who dreamt of something more. In Bee Movie the studio gets small once again, this time planting Jerry Seinfeld—nearly as neurotic and just as panicked—in essentially the same dilemma. Allen played an ant in a hill. Seinfeld is a bee in a hive. But that’s where the two films part company.
Central Park honeybees Barry B. Benson and pal Adam Flayman brace for the lifelong grind of making honey for Honex, New Hive City’s lone employer. Longing for adventure before settling into his dead-end job, Barry does a ride-along with the pollen jocks, a macho squadron bred for action outside the hive. It’s a rush. But chaos ensues and Barry gets bounced around New York City before being saved from certain squashing by Vanessa Bloome, a kindly florist.
Barry knows that the first rule when buzzing around in public is to never speak to humans. But compelled to thank his rescuer, he breaks it. Thus, he and Vanessa develop an interspecies friendship. One day while strolling the aisles of a supermarket, Barry learns that people have been stealing bees’ honey and profiting from it, so he sues the human race … and learns a valuable lesson about the role bees play in the ecosystem.
Barry’s parents express pride in him and do their best to be supportive, even when they can’t relate to his ambitions. Barry may be reluctant to take a mundane job and follow in his father’s footsteps as a honey stirrer, but he’s not lazy. He explains, “I wanna do my part for the hive, but I can’t do it the way they want.” He believes in justice and seizes the opportunity to liberate his kind—Moses-like—from the drudgery of slaving away for an oppressor. [Spoiler Warning] When he realizes his good intentions cause tragic results, Barry accepts responsibility and works equally hard to set things right.
Whereas Barry resists being assigned to one job for the rest of his life, Adam actually welcomes the thought of not having to make too many decisions. He’d rather get comfortable in a role and stay there. For him, change equals stress. [Parents in the audience can use this as a springboard for conversation and a deeper understanding of their own children simply by asking which bee they identify with, and why.] The movie also values teamwork and cooperation (à la Ecclesiastes 4:9-12), with an entire community eventually rallying to save the day. Along those lines, Barry concludes, “Let me tell you something about a small job: If you do it well, it can make a big difference.”
There’s a strong argument for controlling one’s temper, since an angry bee usually dies after stinging someone. And Vanessa believes all life has value, even if her compassion fails to distinguish between a bug and a creature with an eternal soul created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26; Psalm 8:3-5).
An opening voiceover explains how bees, based on mere aerodynamics, have no business flying, yet do so with an utter disregard for what “educated” man thinks should be possible. This paradox provides an example of how, when God wants to orchestrate something, He doesn’t need logic, physics or mathematical probability to make it happen.
Barry and Adam celebrate their good fortune with a “Hallelujah!” after which they slap each other on the forehead in a mock slaying in the Spirit. A juror makes the sign of the cross over his chest when a fat man’s backside gets thrust in his face.
Barry speaks of a long line of world-changing bees, including “Bee-Columbus, Bee-Gandhi and Bee-Jesus.” Layton T. Montgomery, a heartless attorney for the honey industry, plays the God card while arguing for “man’s divine right” to benefit from natural resources “that God has put before us.” Later he refers to “an unholy perversion of the balance of nature.” (Although vilified, he turns out to be right.) Barry trusts in his “27 million-year-old instinct.”
A few remarks about “bug love” include Adam sizing up a classmate (“That girl is hot!”) and an old uncle reminiscing about a sexy cricket (“Crazy legs kept me up all night”). To prove that his parents aren’t really listening to him, Barry floats a few shocking plans he has no intention of carrying out, including “shack[ing] up with a grasshopper.” Spiders are considered desirable for their many legs (though Barry can’t get past their faces). Montgomery baits Barry by calling him illegitimate and asking if he and Vanessa are intimately involved (“Do you live together? Are you her little bed bug?”). A man-made hive contains a picture of the queen the exploited bees are supposedly serving. She has five o’clock shadow, causing Barry to declare, “That’s a man in woman’s clothes. That’s a drag queen!”
There’s a lot of slapstick humor, from literal slapping and people getting knocked cold, to bugs in peril or winding up plastered against a windshield. A bee testing new protective headgear gets whacked with a shoe, a flyswatter and a rolled-up newspaper. Thinking she’s dreaming, Vanessa tries to wake herself by stabbing her hand with a fork. Ray Liotta’s violent outburst in court finds him trying to squash Barry by using his Emmy statue like a hammer.
A woman falls from a height when Vanessa intentionally moves a rolling staircase. Federal agents strong-arm an old lady and shoot a beloved Disney character with a tranquilizer dart. In a dream sequence, Vanessa dies in the fiery crash of an ultralight aircraft.
Characters ponder the imminent and often messy demise facing the average insect. Carcasses of dead bugs show up now and then. A bad guy crunches a scurrying beetle under his shoe. Vanessa’s boyfriend, Ken, tries to kill Barry several times, once by turning a lighter and an aerosol can into a flamethrower (a scene just asking to be imitated by curious children).
An interjection each of “sweet lord” and “oh, lordy.”
Someone is asked if he’s on steroids. Barry sips coffee, noting the potential effects of too much caffeine. A bee is visibly repulsed by secondhand smoke from humans’ cigarettes.
When things look grim, Barry halfheartedly proposes a suicide pact that is dismissed as impractical. Barry and Adam lie to impress girls. And our heroes also lie, steal and cause an innocent bystander bodily harm in the interest of righting a “bigger” wrong. Some lawyers get a bad rap when a mosquito new to the profession says, “I was already a bloodsucking parasite. All I needed was a briefcase.” Excusing himself to use the bathroom, Barry says, “I’m gonna go drain the old stinger.”
In this amiable, manically paced flight of the bumblebee, snarky one-liners and slapstick humor trump warmth and tenderness. While star Jerry Seinfeld’s fans will appreciate that, some of the comic violence and dead-bug gags walk a fine line for young children who have a hard time understanding hyperbole, sarcasm and satire. That notwithstanding, caveats are relatively minor—careless misfires in the shotgun, joke-a-second script, which Seinfeld co-wrote.
“My first thought about the script,” said co-director Simon J. Smith, “was quite honestly, ‘This is insane. This is a mad idea.’ And I mean that in the best sense, because, as you read through the story and watch the character grow, it’s quite fantastic. What was great about it was having Jerry Seinfeld’s humor and point of view funneled through the bee character, which we’ve never seen before. … It’s really about us all. It’s about our society and how we behave and how ridiculous we are most of the time.”
That it is. We live in a hive of sorts, buzzing frantically to produce and keep the system functioning. Are we doing what we were created to do, or simply what we’re expected to do? Social commentary aside, Bee Movie is colorful, breezy, packed with positive messages and less predictable than your typical family film boasting a Happy Meal tie-in. As for the return of Seinfeld, the comedian’s observational humor remains stinger-sharp, even if his nasally kvetching wears thin by the final act. Not an A, but a qualified Bee.