Thursday, November 08, 2007

Bee Movie / ** (PG)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Barry B. Benson: Jerry Seinfeld
Vanessa Bloome: Renee Zellweger
Adam Flayman: Matthew Broderick
Ken: Patrick Warburton
Layton T. Montgomery: John Goodman
Mooseblood: Chris Rock

DreamWorks Animation presents a film directed by Steve Hickner and Simon J. Smith. Written by Jerry Seinfeld and Spike Feresten & Barry Marder & Andy Robin. Running time: 90 min. Rated PG (for mild suggestive humor, and a brief depiction of smoking).

Now I know that as a parent I have an inflated sense of my children’s intelligence and abilities, but my son Jack is a genius. Whether this is true or not I suppose remains to be seen, but I do have corroboration from his kindergarten teacher that he is quite smart. So his reaction to the new DreamWorks animated film “Bee Movie” troubles me. He enjoyed it well enough, if only because it was an opportunity to watch a cartoon on the big screen. But he spent more time during the screening trying to figure out exactly what was going on when he could have been laughing.

It wasn’t that it was a difficult story to follow. Jerry Seinfeld provides the voice of a young bee who is finally ready to enter the hive work force―after three days of grade school, three days of high school, and three days of college (ha, ha). But the idea of choosing a job he will perform for the rest of his life is too much for Barry B. Benson to handle.

Barry’s best friend Adam (Matthew Broderick, “The Producers”) is content with bee life as is. He has pride in his hive and opposes Barry’s ideas about leaving the hive to see the outside. But Barry is tenacious and gets the nectar gatherers to take him on a run. Once outside, Barry is so overwhelmed that he loses his way and inevitably breaks some of the cardinal rules of bee life, the most important of which is “Don’t speak to humans.”

The human he speaks to is a florist named, of all things, Vanessa Bloome (Renee Zellweger, “Bridget Jones’s Diary”). He feels compelled to thank her for saving his life from her self-centered boyfriend, Ken (Patrick Warburton, “The Emperor’s New Groove”). She seems to take the news that bees can speak English at decibel levels audible enough to register in her eardrums very well.

All of this is fairly standard family cartoon material, and is filled with clever Seinfeld-style observational humor, like the way the bee hive is sponsored by a big corporation and run by a series of sub-corporations falling under one conglomerate, or the way it ribs at how in fictional movie societies everything seems to run at a level of chaos that somehow never collapses in on itself. Clearly, this isn’t exactly kid’s stuff. But there is plenty of kid’s stuff, like the goofy hat Adam must wear in his job to save every last drop of honey.

The film displays an amusing, if not entirely focused, combination of your typical boy-meets-world story and intelligent comedy. The second half of the film, however, is only moderately effective in another way. The plot becomes slightly more complex once Barry decides that it is his life’s mission to get all the honey that humans consume returned to the bees. For some reason, Ray Liotta appears as himself, profiting off the bees’ hard labor with his own celebrity line of honey. His presence smells of an unexpected Hollywood friendship between him and Seinfeld, and who would expect Ray Liotta to show up in a kid’s movie?

Anyway, all this leads to a courtroom scene in which Barry―with interspecies girlfriend Vanessa by his side―brings a lawsuit against the human race on behalf of all bees everywhere for the theft of the world’s honey. The results of this legal battle are as unlikely as expecting a six-year old to understand the concept of a law suit. It is not impossible for them to grasp, but it is a great deal of work for something that isn’t nearly as exciting as toys trying to get back to their owner, or a family of superheroes, or even a rat that just wants to cook wonderful food. I have heard from some who felt the latter was a little dull, but not as dull as a courtroom scene. Aren’t there already more than enough of them in films aimed at adults?

Much of the humor in “Bee Movie” is good enough for a chuckle or two, but it seems this is a movie of two minds. One wants to provide a typical cartoon experience, placing human societal characteristics on a very foreign environment. This is the film Jack said he enjoyed when I asked him if he liked it. The other one feels the need to throw in more unique experiences but doesn’t realize they just don’t fit. I’m sure few people have forgotten the anticlimax of the “Seinfeld” television show. Those slice of life oddballs never should have gone anywhere near a courtroom. Neither should their bees.

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