The Reeler

Reviews

November 1, 2007

Bee Movie

Seinfeld's great-looking, wildly unbalanced vanity project a Bee Movie about nothing.

It takes good storytelling to simultaneously entertain little kids and their folks. Sesame Street set the standard with the infusion of utterly specific cultural references into remedial lessons about the alphabet; the Pixar gang raised the bar with pretty much everything since Toy Story, telling stories that roam into mature thematic territory. Dreamworks' most famous entry into this cross-demographic strategy, the Shrek franchise, tends to indulge in sleazier satire than its forebears, from crude dissection of family dynamics to the hypocritical send-ups of crass commercialism. Shrek and its sequels work with occasionally strong waves of comedic enlightenment, but their overt subversive tone comes across as a detriment to the enticing conceit (suggested by the Pixar movies) of a New Age family film. Rather than speaking to people in terms of their ages and levels of awareness, Shrek forces everyone to buy into its gleeful naughtiness as the main price of admission.

Dreamworks continues this uneven tradition with a movie that, unlike Shrek, lacks enough inspiration to be taken on its own terms. Bee Movie, the much-heralded Jerry Seinfeld vehicle that’s been promoted in dozens of clever spots (often funnier than the film) on NBC, throws so many pop culture references and hints at real-world conceits that its story dwindles to little more than a conflation of contrived ideas.

Seinfeld voices young Barry B. Benson, a graduate of his hive’s educational system unwilling to settle into the mundane lifestyle of the worker bee (depicted in the movie as a sort of Willy Wonka factory for honey). Tagging along with the older fieldworkers sent into the city to retrieve pollen, Barry grows obsessed with the human world, befriending convivial florist Vanessa (Renee Zellweger), whose ethereal glow entrances him. His attraction to the opposite sex of another species is a curiosity not really explored (how would they have sex?) as the plot veers in a confounding direction when Barry discovers that humans appropriate honey and other elements of "bee culture" for their own uses. Outraged, he sues. Cue the Seinfeld bass riff.

OK, I made that last part up. But seriously, the former television star has his fingerprints all over this project (he co-wrote the screenplay with three other scribes), and it turns out that his brand of off-the-wall humor doesn’t quite sync up with the telling of a rousing, crowd-pleasing story. The premise is wildly unbalanced and shifts gears too many times; the jokes, meanwhile, are usually vapid and always fairly meaningless. Immediately after Barry meets his lovely florist, for example, he floats around the pool in his honeycomb home dazed by love as his bee parents lecture him about needing to do something with his life. Those in the know will catch this blatant homage to The Graduate, but that doesn't make it a particularly funny send-up. Placing the apathy of Benjamin Braddock into the context of Barry B. Benson doesn’t broaden the appeal of the material. It just steals a scene from a pretty good movie.

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A few one-liners really do work, but they call attention to the surrounding mediocrity. "You met someone?" asks Barry’s pal Adam (Matthew Broderick). "Not a WASP, I hope. You’re parents will kill you!" Or did he say "wasp"? That’s the good part of the Pixar aesthetic -- harmless for the kiddies, hilarious for everyone else because its embedded function in the film is so brilliantly executed. But this pointed humor pops up too randomly in Bee Movie and is usually not concerned with its aimless story. Kinda like Seinfeld.

The visuals, however, are a step above the definitive '90s-era program. It’s a given now that CG-animated movies look great, and Bee Movie seems to have eschewed developing its textures or character animation in favor of remarkably fluid action sequences. The scene where Barry soars through the city trapped in rain generates authentic tension (although it’s got nothing on the best spectacles in The Incredibles). Such scenes are fast-paced enough to engage just about anybody, while the vibrant colors and goofy vibe of the script will keep kids happily distracted.

But if Bee Movie has enough zaniness to keep the little ones at bay, it's worth asking whether or not it has any valuable lessons for the wee viewers. And it does, in fact, have lessons, but they're murky at best and somewhat unnerving at worst. Bee Movie begins by analogizing the labor-driven environment of the hive to some sort of gleeful sweatshop -- similar to Dreamworks' best animated film, Antz -- but when Barry’s lawsuit effectively demolishes honey production, the bees lose their lust for life. That twist seems to validate a socialist lifestyle, although I won't go so far as to call Seinfeld a Commie in bee's clothing. The unintentional subtext seems to come solely from the narrative mess. Hate to say it, but what we have here is a movie about nothing.



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