In the marketing blitz for Bee Movie (DreamWorks Animation), one story gets told over and over again: how Jerry Seinfeld, at dinner with Steven Spielberg one night (who picks up the tab in that situation?), mentioned that he’d like to make a movie about bees called Bee Movie. Spielberg immediately called Jeffrey Katzenberg, his partner at DreamWorks, and floated the idea, but Seinfeld wasn’t really pitching, just goofing on the title. Nonetheless, he found himself handed a deal that, after years of development, resulted in his first foray into movie comedy.
That might not the best anecdote to use for promoting Bee Movie, whose story has a cursory, jury-rigged feel: You can imagine Seinfeld at his desk the next morning, frantically figuring out what the hell all these bees were going to do. What he came up with is a curious mix of courtroom farce, romantic comedy, and ecological manifesto that, while not without charm, never coheres into a unitary vision. That may seem like a lot to ask of a movie about talking honeybees, but even children’s movies—especially children’s movies—require their own internal logic to create a sense of momentum and necessity. Instead, Bee Movie—forgive me—flits from setup to setup, harvesting laughs wherever it can but never really delivering the sweet, sweet nectar of great comedy.
Barry B. Benson (voiced by Seinfeld), along with his best friend, Adam (Matthew Broderick), is about to graduate from college and start work at the hive’s only business concern: the Honex corporation. But Barry, in the grand tradition of freshly diploma’d movie heroes, just can’t get motivated for a lifetime of corporate droning. He moons around, floating in his parents’ honey pool and dreaming of something better. Finally, he sneaks out of the hive on a mission with the Pollen Jocks, a macho team of flower-diving daredevils (this plot element bothered me, because aren’t all worker bees actually female? Would it have emasculated a nation to watch Barry go out thrill-seeking with a squadron of kick-ass ladies?)
Flying over Central Park in the movie’s most exuberant sequence, Barry discovers a whole new world of possibility and meets a cute human florist named Vanessa (Renée Zellweger), who saves him from being swatted to death by her Neanderthal boyfriend (Patrick Warburton, Seinfeld’s erstwhile David Puddy). To thank her for saving his life, Barry breaks the cardinal bee law and speaks to a human, and soon he and Vanessa are having coffee and exchanging Seinfeldian banter.
After an awkward middle segment in which Vanessa and Barry appear to be courting—just long enough for adult viewers to begin pondering the erotic possibilities of a human-apian pairing—the movie abruptly shifts to a courtroom setting. Having discovered that humans make a practice of harvesting honey for their own consumption, Barry sets out to sue the entire human race. I won’t spoil the outcome here, except to say that the lawsuit proves disastrous for bees, humans, and flowers, alike (in an unforeseeable coincidence, the movie’s bleak vision of a world without bees eerily presages the current crisis in world apiculture). A few flimsy plot devices and one deus ex machina later, the way is paved for bee-human détente and the ongoing existence of pollinated plants on earth, not to mention Vanessa and Barry’s creepy friendship.
Bee Movie is a perfectly good-natured and often clever diversion that intelligently steers clear of DreamWorks’ usual Shrek-derived snarkiness (except for two unfunny celebrity cameos from Ray Liotta and—groan—Sting). The animation, while hardly innovative, looks crisp, bright, and pleasing. And many lines that are only OK on paper pop when delivered in Seinfeld’s trademark outraged falsetto, particularly when he vents his rage about the humans’ theft of honey: “We’re living on two quarts a year, you’re putting it in lip balm for no reason whatsoever!”
It’s Bee Movie ‘s critical misfortune that it comes out only a few months after the sublime Ratatouille, another computer-animated comedy about a misfit member of an oft-despised species who, thanks to his unique gifts, manages to insert himself successfully into the human world. It’s not likely that Bee Movie’s artistic inferiority to Ratatouille will hurt it at the box office, though: The movie’s more than cute, funny, and (at 81 minutes) brisk enough to move families in and out of the multiplex in mass quantities, like the social insects we are.