Bee Movie (2007)


Bee Movie
Dir. Simon J. Smith and Steve HicknerPremiered at London October 28, 2007

Bee Movie is exactly the kind of film you’d expect from Dreamworks at the tail end of its mission to make fun of Disney and particularly Michael Eisner. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a movie whose trailer contained no footage from the actual film. It’s exactly what you’d expect of a film where Jerry Seinfeld attempts to play an actual character. And it’s exactly what you’d expect from the kind of movie that got product placement on 30 Rock. Let’s talk about it.

Seinfeld plays Barry Benson, a recently graduated bee looking to start his career in the honey business. Faced with the terrifying prospect of doing the same job forever, he goes outside the hive with the elite “pollen jocks” (led by Rip Torn) and ends up in the home of kindhearted florist Vanessa Bloome (Renée Zellweger), who saves his life. Barry then breaks bee law by thanking her, revealing that bees can talk. While Barry’s friendship with Vanessa alienates her highly allergic boyfriend Ken (Patrick Warburton), his discovery that humans have been enslaving bees to produce honey starts a lawsuit for the ages, with unexpected consequences of its own.

Bee Movie is weird; everything about it suggests that this went through many, many drafts, none of which were satisfactory as a whole. It’s not terrible, but it’s definitely not good.  It varies from a re-hash of Dreamworks’ debut animated feature Antz, tries for consumerist satire, parodies courtroom drama with weird racial overtones, and then ends up as an environmental fable that inadvertently endorses slavery. It even gets a parting jab at Disney when Winnie the Pooh gets shot with a tranquilizer gun (meaning yes, Winnie the Pooh is a sentient being in the “real” world presented here).

While the film has its share of veteran voice actors (notably Patrick Warburton as Ken and John Goodman as the defending attorney), it’s far from their best work, and the biggest celebrity voices are severely wanting. Renée Zellweger is the worst, however, awkwardly rushing through her lines in a manner reminiscent of Ewan McGregor’s uncharacteristically horrible performance in Robots.

You might reasonably suspect that Bee Movie was the type of long-gestating project that went through a lot of replacement stars– you might easily imagine Will Smith, John Travolta, Matt Damon– before landing on Seinfeld. And you wouldn’t be more wrong; despite all appearances as haphazardly constructed, endlessly retooled, compromised contractual obligation of a film, the whole thing was Seinfeld’s idea, he conceived it, co-wrote it, and filled the production with alums from his show. Maybe if Seinfeld co-creator Larry David had been one of them, it might have been less unfunny.

Bee Movie defies understanding as the misguided passion project it truly is: heavy on plot but light on story, having some decent jokes but never building to a coherent whole, and borrowing so blatantly from other animated films as to be little more than a self-parody.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Almost all the dated cultural references take place in the courtroom segment. John Goodman’s attorney character accuses Barry of being on steroids, and researches by reading The Secret Life of Bees. Barry spouts puns about Halliburton and Enron, and references the Build-A-Bear Workshop.

How Did It Do?
Bee Movie grossed $287.6 million, failing to break even against a preposterous $150 million budget, and a marketing budget that featured product placement for an entire episode of 30 Rock in its critical prime. It was Dreamworks Animation’s least successful film at the time since Shark Tale, which is appropriate on so many levels. It got a divisive 51% rating on RottenTomatoes, with the bulk of positive reviews praising it to high heaven as “not as terrible as most other mainstream animated movies,” but today is remembered only as a punchline, if at all.

Normally, it would end there. But Bee Movie’s perplexing embarrassments continue: Dreamworks was accused of violating implied-in-fact contract by a team of Swedish animators who had presented a similar idea to the studio in the early 2000s, but could not find a lawyer to represent them in the US. Dreamworks was however sued by a cosmetics company for using their trademark phrase “give bees a chance” in the film. They settled out of court. Surprisingly, Dreamworks wasn’t sued by the advertising firm responsible for promoting the anti-allergy drug Nasonex, whose TV commercials’ similarities to the film’s premise were pointed out by the typically pop-culture illiterate Time magazine.

Jerry Seinfeld went back to just being himself, which is for the best.

Next Time: Beowulf