Photograph by DreamWorks Animation L.L.C.
BUZZ AWHILE: Jerry Seinfeld lends his voice to a bee named Barry B. Benson in 'Bee Movie.'
In animated 'Bee Movie,' some salt and some sting go down easy
By Richard von Busack
LATELY, CGI-animated cartoons have been something for over-12-year-olds to avoid. Show-off celebrities play themselves; there are a few dropped buzz words (we'd expect even more of these in something called Bee Movie); and finally some simple moralizing. Indeed, Bee Movie has the plot about the misfit outsider who learns to harmonize with the rest of the group. It's a plot arc sold to children, some of whom grow up happier as outsiders. But something happened during the writing of Bee Movie, and the hive-mind responsible made a terrific cartoon. It even managed to incorporate a very unfunny situation into the plot: a flowerless spring, such as would result from the spread of Colony Collapse Disorder. And CCD was the main reason bees seemed like a hard cartoon sell. One felt more like weeping over them than laughing.
Jerry Seinfeld, credited as a writer, does the voice of Barry B. Benson, a bee who can't get with the program at his colony, Honex. Being worked to death interests him less than the chance of seeing the outside world with the Royal Nectar Force. Out of pity, the "Pollen Jocks" take him on a flight outside of the hive, which is located in the Sheep Meadow in Central Park. One expects the outsider to learn the folly of being a nonconformist and to grovel for a way back. On the contrary, Barry thrives. He even manages to start a cozy interspecies love affair with a human, Vanessa (Renée Zellweger); this liaison with an insect infuriates her tennis-crazed dolt of a boyfriend (voiced by the splendid Patrick Warburton, doing a symphony of Kirk Douglas growls).
Barry becomes socially aware after finding out that honey is being stolen and sold to humans. He infiltrates industrially farmed beehives, and returns to initiate a class-action suit against the human race. What transpires is the only really funny courtroom scene we've had this year, with John Goodman harrumphing merrily as the obese corporate lawyer. The subpoenaed include Sting, whose "prance-about" stage name is a speciesist insult against bees. Then the matter of the supermarket plastic honey bear is brought out: a reminder of untold bee suffering at the claws of such creatures. The legal victory turns out to be a disaster: "Honey changes everything."
The wit here doesn't stop for a captivating, fast-paced hour and a half. Hearing her ditzy florist, whose great dream it is to see the Tournament of Roses, we rediscover the charm that Zellweger once had. This parade, a promising spot for a finale, gets visited fast in favor of a larger, more Bond-film-style climax—not that there's anything wrong with that. Generally, when celebrities lend their voices to a CGI cartoon, it's like a small tincture of personality flavoring a heavy portion of lumpy kid-friendly cartoon. By contrast, Seinfeld has preserved the best of his act here. He can do the film on voice alone, because he could have been a great radio comedian. He knows his traditions—the quiet dismay of Bob Newhart, the pusillanimousness of Bob Hope, the wounded feelings of Jack Benny. The animators remember the Warner Bros. cartoons, too. Throughout, we experience the satisfying sense of a cartoon made to entertain people who know what funny is, as opposed to the children who'll show up whether it's funny or not.
BEE MOVIE (PG), directed by Simon J. Smith and Steve Hickner, written by Jerry Seinfeld, Spike Feresten, Barry Marder and Andy Robin and with the voices of Seinfeld and Renée Zellweger, opens Nov. 2 valleywide.
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