Bee Movie checklist: Lush animation? Check. The return of Jerry Seinfeld? Check. Funny? … Did somebody forget to bring the funny? Whoops.
So if you’re Jerry Seinfeld, you’ve taken a 10-year hiatus from the national spotlight after wrapping up the most successful sitcom in the history of television, and you decide you want to work again, what’s your first instinct? Seinfeld has received offers from everyone in show business in the last few years, but he seemed content to just do his stand up and enjoy life after Seinfeld. That was the case until one fateful evening, when he pitched an idea to Steven Spielberg over dinner for his triumphant return. What was the idea? A movie about bees.
Wuh? Bees? Really? Given the pedigree of the guy behind it, I guess you have to give the movie the benefit of the doubt, right? And the story has that uniquely Seinfeldian logic to it: A college-educated bee ventures outside of his hive to discover that humans are exploiting bees for their honey, and decides to sue them into submission. Could be funny. The problem is it isn’t.
Bee Movie is the story of Barry B. Benson (voiced by Seinfeld), a young bee who’s just graduated from college, and is about to start a career making honey. But Barry’s is having second thoughts about all of this. Bees get to make one choice after college. They choose their job and then that’s it for the rest of their lives — no reconsiderations and no days off for as long as they live (substitute “finance” for “honey-making” and you’ve described a good chunk of Cornell graduates). Wary of the hive-mind mentality, and desperate to see the outside world, Barry hitches a ride with the macho Pollen Jocks (kind of like the bee-world’s professional athletes) and escapes into greater Manhattan. But the human world, wonderful though it is, can be a dangerous place for a bee, and Barry nearly meets his end between a pair of work boots, only to be saved by a compassionate florist named Vanessa (Renee Zelwegger). He develops a little bit of a platonic, cross-species crush on her, and breaks one of the bees’ cardinal rules: never speak to humans. After she gets over the initial shock of talking to an insect, the two hit it off. When Barry discovers that the human’s have been exploiting bees for their honey, the new friends set out on a crusade to bring down the big honey manufacturers in the court of law.
All of this would be a lot funnier if it wasn’t done with such a straight face. This is the type of story that smacks of satire, but the presentation is far less irreverent than you might imagine. It seems the main problem is that Seinfeld departs from what he’s good at in Bee Movie. Seinfeld was a show about nothing. It was about little things that consistently got blown way out of proportion. There were never too many major plot lines, very few continuous story arcs. That’s the kind of humor Seinfeld excels at, and in the moments where the movie takes that absurdist sort of tone, its genuinely funny (“Ray Liotta Brand Honey” is a real stand-out). The central story, however, tries to make a point; it tries to have a message (something Seinfeld the TV show never did) and the movie suffers as a result. You can’t try to seem blasé and still be moralistic at the same time.
The movie did have strong points, though. The animation, for one, is very impressive. The color palette is filled with vibrant yellows and creamy pinks, greens, and blues. The images are all very sharp and very textured; there’s lots of energy in each image, and everything is very nice to look at. The scene where Barry escapes from the hive into Central Park presents the viewer with a gorgeous perspective of Manhattan that doubles well as a “Visit New York” promotion. The voice-work is also pretty solid. It was a little weird hearing Seinfeld’s trademark ranting coming from the mouth of a bee with no likeness to the comedian, but it’s not too hard to get used to. Matthew Broderick, who’s always good with voices, does well as Barry’s best friend Adam, and Kathy Bates, Barry Levinson, and John Goodman all lend a good deal of character to their roles (especially Goodman as an irascible Southern lawyer). On the other hand, Renee Zellweger, who’s generally pretty insipid, isn’t all that good. She slurs her words together a lot of the time and there are moments when the way she speaks doesn’t seem to be in synch with the expressions on her character’s face. I don’t know whether voice-work or animation is typically done first, but one way or another, someone dropped the ball.
Overall, the movie feels a little bit schizophrenic, uncertain whether it wants to be a cheeky post-modern comedy, like Seinfeld was, or the feel-good family film the studio was probably pushing for. Bee Movie tries to balance both (in the tradition of the Shrek) but isn’t really up to the job.