Was there ever a better time to make an animated kids’ movie about bees? True, they’re not very cute, and they sting. But all of a sudden, humanity is realizing it needs the humble honeybee. News of diseases that wipe out bee colonies by the thousands has surprised us out of our relative indifference to the little buggers, and some people are painting apocalyptic scenarios in which bee extinction means the end of our food supply. Plus, if you want to get metaphorical, consider that bees are the ultimate sweatshop workers, deprived of the lucre we reap from their labor. Given all that, how could a movie in which a talking bee sues the human race for stealing honey not be a darkly funny, resonant modern fable?
Pretty easily, it turns out. Mixing colorful, computer-generated critters and silly situations with serious stuff isn’t that hard — Brad Bird managed with Ratatouille. But in Bee Movie, star/producer/co-writer Jerry Seinfeld and co. aim a bit lower. On talk shows, Seinfeld has said he concocted the title as a one-liner — “B movie,” get it? — and worried about the story later. Despite a fairly elaborate plot, the whole movie plays in that goofy spirit: as a framework for puns on the level of a Catskills comedy routine from the ’50s.
And oh boy, are there a lot of bee puns. From bees who graduate college with perfect B averages to a passing reference to the great apian spiritual leader “Bejesus,” it never ends. Nor does the alliteration. The film’s hero, Barry B. Benson (voiced by Seinfeld), is a young bee who finishes his schooling and goes straight to the work world, a hive of activity. But he’s disconcerted, like many human liberal-arts grads, to find out his fate is mind-numbing toil: “You’re just gonna work us to death?” he whines.
Eager for a sweeter existence, Barry joins a bunch of commandos called the “pollen jocks” on a trip outdoors, where they zoom over Central Park and suck the nectar from flowering trees. After a bunch of slapstick bee-out-of-hive sequences involving tennis courts and vehicles, Barry lands on the window-sill of Vanessa Bloome (Renée Zellweger), a ditzy but good-hearted florist who hears his tiny voice and becomes his soulmate. It turns out everyone can hear bees talk, which certainly makes it easier for Barry to file suit after he discovers rows of honey lining grocery-store shelves.
Aside from wordplay and Froot-Loop colors — which make the hive’s interior look like a psychedelic Disneyland — Bee Movie doesn’t seem to be committed to much. Bits of cultural satire, presumably aimed at adults, don’t go anywhere. (In addition to reclaiming all honey for bees, Barry wants to charge Sting and even folks who say, “Honey, I’m home” with copyright infringement — perhaps a dig at recent intellectual-property suits.) These sorts of throwaway jokes work on “The Simpsons,” but not so much in a short feature with thinly sketched characters. Another ongoing motif is, ahem, star-crossed interspecies romance. Vanessa’s boorish boyfriend acts jealous of Barry, and a woozy dream sequence suggests the insect is actually infatuated with the pretty Homo sapiens. But in a kids’ movie — any sane movie, really — there’s nowhere to go with this “relationship,” so it comes off as a pretext for cheesy comic business.
Too bad Bee Movie didn’t delve into the actual sexual life of bees — in a tasteful, G-rated way, of course. A society where females do all the work, while males lounge around waiting for their chance to get buzzy with the queen, sounds like material for a nifty absurdist comedy.
Instead, the movie gives us a hive world straight out of vintage Disney or Leave It to Beaver, where tie-wearing male worker bees mingle with the occasional eyelash-batting B girl. You don’t expect a film about a talking, litigious bee to be scientifically accurate. But could it at least be funny?