This review appeard in the Australian Jewish News on December 7, 2007.
Directed by Simon J. Smith
Written by Jerry Seinfeld and Spike Feresten
Starring Jerry Seinfeld, Renee Zellweger, Matthew Broderick, John Goodman, Chris Rock, Kathy Bates and Barry Levinson
The truly successful animated films are those that appeal to adults with kids enjoying them just as much. Compare the movie version of Spongebob Squarepants to Shrek or Toy Story: which would you rather see? Thus the arrival of the G-rated animated Bee Movie, Jerry Seinfeld’s first feature film, is an entertainment event for all of us. The creator/star of one of the most successful television series in history has finally jumped media.
Imbued throughout the Seinfeld television series was a secular and cultural Jewish consciousness. Although only one major character (Seinfeld himself) was actually Jewish in the show, there was a strong sense that all of the characters were Jewish. Or perhaps it simply came from the fact that they “lived” in New York City, one of the most Jewish cities on earth. Or perhaps not: Friends also was set there, and had Jewish characters, but they always felt like a bunch of young preppy WASPs egging each other on.
In Bee Movie Jerry Seinfeld voices Barry B. Benson, a young bee (in a hive in New York’s Central Park, of course) who has graduated the equivalent of bee “college” and rebels against the expectation that he will simply be a boring worker bee for the impersonal “Honex” corporation for the rest of his working days. He wants more from life, to the exasperation of his loving (and very Jewish) parents, voiced by Kathy Bates and Jewish film director Barry Levinson. (When referring to a possible girlfriend at one point they remark “I hope she’s bee-ish.”) To the dismay of his best friend Adam Flayman (voiced by Matthew Broderick) – a Jewish bee if there ever was one – young Barry ventures out on a honey-gathering trip, leading to a series of misadventures and eventually befriending Vanessa Bloom (voice of Renee Zellweger), a florist with a heart of gold and a crude boyfriend (and a triple entendre surname: work it out). Inter-species communication is fully normal in such films.
Ecological and social justice themes then arise, when Barry decides to stop the exploitation of bees for human honey consumption, leading to a court case, a comment on industrial agriculture and much more.
Bee Movie has sharp and delightful animation, with a whole lot in common with both Antz and A Bug’s Life, animated films which gave insects the range of human characteristics and feelings. There are some great action sequences, my favourite being Barry’s getting stuck on a tennis ball and being hurled throughout New York City, and his first engagement with humans. There are also a number of truly clever visual references to classic films – The Graduate (the angst of youth), Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (industrial work) and Spiderman – and pop culture icons: there is a Bee Larry King, a “Ray Liotta Private Select Honey” (Ray Liotta being an intense American actor known for his darker portrayals) and a courtroom scene lifted from John Grisham.
Bee Movie is enjoyable and charming entertainment, and parents of young children should be confident that there is little here to scare the “smalls”, with just enough to engage the adults. But there is just enough. The pop culture satire is not very deep and wears a bit thin, and the plot – after setting up some nice relationships and dilemmas (how can you be free, as a bee?) – simply does not know where to go, and so resorts courtroom theatrics and a quickly tacked on (and too quickly resolved) environmental catastrophe.
I’ll give Bee Movie a solid “B+” for some good laughs, effort and execution.