Bee Movie, in which a winged, striped hero voiced by Jerry Seinfeld sues humanity for expropriating his people’s honey, is a satire afraid of its own sting. Co-written by Seinfeld and three collaborators, and directed by Steven Hickner, it’s funnier, more visually imaginative and more engrossing that its backhanded positive reviews have suggested. It’s guaranteed to satisfy any parent looking for well-done escapist humor, and it’ll probably please kids old enough to understand the film’s plot and get at least half of its jokes. The movie’s pleasures are technical, superficial: a brilliantly timed line-reading (a mosquito voiced by Chris Rock shows up at the end as a partner in Barry’s newly-founded legal clinic and explains, “I was already a bloodsucking parasite…All I needed was this briefcase!”), a smartly-executed action sequence (the hero flitting through Central Park and midtown Manhattan during a rainstorm) or a marvelous throwaway sight gag (in the background behind two conversing bees you briefly glimpse a bee newspaper vendor, his display board trumpeting today’s top headline, “Bee stings seven, then self”). Unlike DreamWorks’ rousing and passionate Old Testament musical Prince of Egypt and the stealthy-serious Shrek films—which mounted a radically aggressive, sustained, internally consistent rebuke of the received ideas of beauty and cultural superiority ingrained in almost every animated feature since Snow White—Bee Movie is content to be a sweet diversion. But even with that implicit caveat, there’s something fundamentally disappointing about the film, because it clearly could have been a lot more daring and memorable than it is, and chose to distrust and downplay its freshest impulses.
Like Seinfeld, Bee Movie is most impressive when it finds humor in political, historical and even racial/ethnic bits that most blockbuster animated features wouldn’t dare think of mining for humor. Early in the movie, Barry, a representative of an insect culture that’s explicitly likened to an enclave of Jewish slave labor, sits in the back of a honey truck with Rock’s mosquito, who’s clearly supposed to stand in for black folks, and listens to him complain that “Mosquito girls don’t want to be with no mosquito” and would rather “trade up” to another species, like the moth. When Barry acts as a comic-epic liberator, storming into a prison-camp-like artificial beehive on a honey farm and urging its smoke-intoxicated, demoralized inhabitants to free themselves, and then leads his people in reparations-for-slavery type lawsuit against humanity, which is represented by a fat, drawling, species-baiting cracker lawyer voiced by John Goodman, Bee Movie threatens to become the latest (and potentially funniest) in a long line of DreamWorks animated pictures on slavery or holocaust themes (Antz, Prince of Egypt and even the Shrek films all qualify; they’re all about casting off cultural or physical shackles and seizing the right of self-determination). But it backs off from these themes, just as it ultimately flinches from its intimations of anti-hive-mentality sloganeering, which draws analogies between 20th century western capitalism (wherein a citizen took whatever job a person of his social class was supposed to take and stayed in it until he died) and industrialized communism (the bees are assigned crap jobs within the hive like Soviet-era workers, and are pressured to profess enthusiasm or be characterized as sullen refuseniks). By the end, Bee Movie, which championed a noncomformist, intimates that Barry’s lawsuit was actually bad for both bees and humanity, and does an about-face that requires Barry to execute a 99-yard dash to victory and restore the status quo.
Like Seinfeld, and like Sarah Silverman’s “controversial” stand-up act, which removes the possibility of offense by letting the audience know that it’s not one of “those” people who would take her racist/sexist/sicko one-liners at face value, Bee Movie’s stock-in-trade is what you might call safe-dangerous wit. It draws gasps by daring to “go there,” but it doesn’t stay there, because staying there would require a seriousness of purpose (a quality not incompatible with great comedy) that Seinfeld and his collaborators can’t or won’t muster. Seinfeld was mostly safe-dangerous, too, but it had a major saving grace that will likely give it some staying power long after nobody remembers the contraceptive sponge, the magic bullet or Keith Hernandez: its ruthless, timeless portrait of a culture of selfish, trivial narcissism run amok. Bee Movie seems like it’s going to head in that direction as well, especially in its first act, which is rife with references to The Graduate: a swimming pool reverie; a “Plastics”-type exchange between Barry and his dad; Barry and his best friend, voiced by Matthew Broderick, tooling around the hive in what looks like the bug-world equivalent of Ben Braddock’s Alfa Romeo Spyder convertible. But here, too, it shows no backbone. (I know bees have exoskeletons, but still.)
Even its supposedly rousing or touching moments are sold with a self-neutering wink, like the romantic subplots in mid-to-late period Marx Brothers films. And unlike the lowbrow, parodic bits in the Shrek movies—which, like the Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back jokes in the Toy Story movies, will still be funny to future generations of kids because they’re rooted in characterization and incident, and not totally dependent on knowledge of pop culture trivia—some of the funniest gags in Bee Movie are so of-the-moment that they’ll soon need footnotes. Case in point: the bit where Barry and his human paramour, florist Vanessa Bloome (Renée Zellweger), have to land a plane after the pilots become incapacitated, and Barry exclaims, “John Travolta’s a pilot! How hard could it be?” Even worse—because it’s one of the most hilarious sequences in the entire film—is Barry’s interview in the bee world with bespectacled, winged TV interviewer Larry B. King, voiced by the CNN host. It’s a killer scene in November of ’07—King’s superb performance as himself matches Seinfeld’s dehydrated deadpan. But very soon it’ll seem as pointless and incomprehensible as the genie’s Jack Nicholson and Arsenio Hall impersonations in Aladdin, or the recurring bit in “8 Ball Bunny” where Humphrey Bogart randomly shows up as Fred C. Dobbs from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and asks, “Can you help a poor American down on his luck?”
The most beguiling element in the movie is Barry’s platonic but still taboo-busting intra-species relationship with Vanessa. Thanks in large part to Zellweger—an acquired taste whose most striking feature is her bizarro, raspy-voiced, Shirley MacLaine-on-Zoloft kookiness—the bee-on-woman banter has a laid-back kooky magic that’s unlike anything you’ve seen in a recent animated feature. It’s the self-conscious, urban-intellectual neurotic vibe cultivated by Diane Keaton and Woody Allen grafted to a Beauty-and-the-Bee tale. There’s immense promise here, both as love story and social satire (“I hope she’s bee-ish!” Barry’s mother says hopefully). The fact that the relationship builds amid the spires of Central Park’s luxury apartments, overlooking a quilted panorama of foliage and a jagged skyline beyond, promises swooning, doomed romanticism: King Kong in reverse. Drinking tea on the roof of Vanessa’s apartment building, our bee hero, who’s perched on the rim of his mug, moves closer to his lady love by stepping onto his sugar cube, sticking a stirrer down into the drink, and pushing himself toward the opposite rim like a tiny Venetian gondolier. “Who can deny the heart that is singing?” the smitten Barry proclaims—a lovestruck line that the forever-aloof Jerry Seinfeld could never sell if he weren’t disguised as an animated insect.
Surprise: Vanessa all but vanishes from the movie halfway through, along with the sense of yearning that gave the smart-ass little bee his only hint of vulnerability. That leaves the audience with one-liners. That’s not sufficient to elevate Bee Movie above sweet nothing status, but it’s something. I’m still smiling over the scene where Barry tells Vanessa he’s enjoyed hanging out with her, but he’s really got to go, and she asks if he liked his coffee. “Sorry I couldn’t finish it,” he says, “but if I did, I’d be up for the rest of my life.”