I was never any good with yearbooks.
When I moved at the end of 4th grade, while we were getting registered at my new elementary school, I was given a yearbook by the well-meaning receptionist. She told me to take it home and look through it to “see what my classmates look like and start to get a feel for who I might want to be friends with.” This, in retrospect, was some bogus stuff. She could have stopped at “see what your classmates look like” so I would just have the mentality of putting faces to names, but instead she basically handed me a handful of 4th grade Facebook profile pictures and said “get to judgin’!”
Then came the matter of signing at the end of the year. That was a whole other ordeal altogether. It was important to stay in your lane. You could ask for your immediate friends group to sign your yearbook, and maybe even get away with asking everyone in your homeroom. The most ambitious kids would try and get everyone in the grade to sign. But you didn’t want to ask people who were out of your social class.
And all that’s leaving alone the matter of the content of your signature. Some folks just signed their names, others left small notes or inside jokes. “H.A.G.S.” (Have A Great Summer) was a go-to for anyone who didn’t have any real relationship with the person whose yearbook they were signing, as was “First to sign your crack!” written along the crease between the back cover and last page.
There was one, though, that I found people saying and writing pretty frequently my senior year of high school.
“Don’t ever change.”
Or something to that effect. And, like the elementary receptionist inadvertently nudging me toward judging some 4th grade books by their covers, the people who would say this would undoubtedly mean well. They like you. They wish the two of you would maintain this relationship on into the future. I get that, and that’s nice. Especially when you’re all about to “enter the real world” as high school graduation is frequently framed, the comfort of being surrounded by friends and acquaintances as you’ve known them seems appealing.
But objectively, as life is often defined or at least punctuated by changes and transitions, isn’t it sort of messed up to wish that on someone? Don’t ever change. Stay where you are. Don’t grow. Maintain the standard.
So I’m breaking my pledge of no Pixar movies to talk about A Bug’s Life, which I’m ok with because I’ve found that it’s severely underrated and overlooked, consistently ranking low on Pixar lists, and, as far as I’ve seen, never even breaking into the top 10. This film was super important to me in my early childhood, but it has so much to offer even outside that.
What’s Going On (Plot Stuff):
Flik is just a single worker in a colony of ants on Ant Island, a community devoted to collecting food to offer the bully grasshoppers who come to collect before the rainy season every year. In return, the grasshoppers offer “protection” of the ants from other “bigger, meaner” bugs than themselves in true mobster fashion. But Flik isn’t just one of the pack. He’s an inventor, always looking for ways to use things differently, more efficiently. On the day the grasshoppers are supposed to come and collect, though, Flik screws up and puts the entire colony on thin ice with Hopper (the grasshoppers’ leader), leaving the soon-to-be-queen, Princess Atta, at a loss of what to do about Flik. However, Flik then has the idea that he’ll leave to the city to hire a group of tough bugs to help defend them from the grasshoppers. He leaves, only to mistake a ragtag troupe of circus performer bugs for a “troop” of warriors. Bringing them back to Ant Island, he soon realizes the misunderstanding, but convinces the troupe to play along while he figures out a “plan c” for how to deal with Hopper and his gang.
Why It’s So Dang Good:
So first of all, let me throw this at you, and take it with a grain of salt, as it is my wife, not myself, who has the psychology degree.
There was this developmental psychologist named Erik Erikson who identified these 8 stages of psychosocial development from infancy to death. Each of these stages is identified by a dichotomy, a sort of head-to-head competition of forces acting on us, vying for the chance to define our growth. The 4th stage is Industry vs. Inferiority, and this is where I think a lot of the basis is for A Bug’s Life.
This stage basically seeks to answer the question, “Where do I fit in?” What am I good at? It takes place roughly from ages 5-12, when children are going through elementary school. We learn to socialize, as well as to learn, to write, read, ‘rithmetic; we play little league, draw, jam out Hot Crossed Buns on the recorder.
This is the time in our lives that lays the foundation for what our role will be in society, how we will function.
And Flik is a grown person (ant) who is struggling daily to answer this question. See, the ants are a very habit-based community. Everyone picks grain individually, walks single file to the offering place, places the food there, and goes to pick more. It’s the insect version of the 9 to 5 cubicle job, stamping papers and punching time cards. There is a system and that system is the full measure of your worth.
And yet, Flik is haunted by his desire to not only explore his own passions and creativity, but also to be a well-functioning and contributing member of this community. So his inventions seek to improve productivity of collecting food. It’s new, it’s better, it’s more efficient, and it’s a product of his passion. And it’s rejected outright. Because it doesn’t fit the status quo.
Meanwhile, the ant colony as a whole are, ironically, also victims of this sort of thinking. Hopper outlines their purpose in his “industry” of sorts very clearly. The ants, who the grasshoppers have made to feel like inferior creatures even down to a biological level (a dynamic which, by the way, smacks of the way white people would justify their treatment of black slaves at the height of the reign of slavery in America, and onward) pick the food, the grasshoppers eat the food, and the grasshoppers leave. The cycle repeats. And so the ants as a society also find themselves as simply a spoke in a wheel that keeps turning, leaving them to have to keep up.
This whole dynamic, the skeleton for the plot, is a great representation of racism, sexism, classism, and really any instance of systemic elitism. Every character, in some way or another, is having to answer the question, “Where do I fit in? What good am I?”
For Princess Atta, it’s her anxiety about inheriting the crown. For her sister, Princess Dot, it is that she still can’t fly, despite her wings having started to grow in. And for the circus troupe, it’s the reality that they’ve developed these talents and skills, and yet those don’t seem to be paying the same dividends they once had.
And this is where a lesson that Flik teaches Dot is integral. He takes a rock and tells her to pretend it’s a seed. He tells her that right now, it’s small and doesn’t do much, but over time and with the right nurturing, it will grow into a large, strong tree (none of which she understands because she’s hung up on it being a rock, not a seed). This underscores all the questions about finding your place in the world. Give it time. Know that you’ll grow, and think about what you want to grow into as it’s happening.
As the movie unfolds, we find that these characters, much like us, aren’t defined by their skills and the way they fit into the machines that are their societies. What is much more important is what makes them unique as individuals. There’s a scene where a bird is trying to eat Dot, and Flik and the circus crew have to save her. And the way they do this isn’t by utilizing the skills of their professions, but by using aspects of themselves that are vital to who they are. Francis the Ladybug and Dim the beetle fly their friends around. Gypsy, the gypsy moth uses her wing pattern to distract and disorient the bird. Slim the stickbug uses his height to prop up Heimlich the caterpillar into the bird’s line of sight while Heimlich entices it by… being plump. And all of these things in concert lead to success. The lesson becomes that your greatest assets are the ones that form your character, not the ones that simply allow you to function in society and meet a status quo.
Ultimately, all these voices come together at the end when the ants realize the very thing that the grasshoppers hoped they wouldn’t: that they outnumber their oppressors. Suddenly the whole purpose of their society is called into question, and they can, together, reshape it. So they all stand up against the grasshoppers, and they win. They take a chance jumping outside their comfort zones to make a change, and it happens. It’s as though, communally, they all realize that, no matter what, they are growing into a tree, and it’s up to them to decide what kind of tree to grow into.
It’s all scary stuff. Fear plays a big part in the story, culminating gracefully in the ants’ use of a fake bird, the ultimate predator in their food chain, as a means of changing how things are done and standing up to the grasshoppers.
But the movie’s also mindful of who’s hearing its message. The fact is that you’re not always going to be the Flik. You won’t always be the lone voice of innovation and even revolution. Sometimes you’ll be the Atta, in a position to advocate for and believe in that small voice crying out from the crowd. And sometimes you’ll be the Dot, impatient for change to come, but also given the opportunity to show your teachers that their lessons didn’t fall on deaf ears. And other times, perhaps most often, you’ll simply be an ant in the colony. You’ll do your part and you’ll do your best, but when change comes along, when the opportunity for doing good comes along, your being a part of a community makes all the difference.
The Short and Skinny:
You are constantly growing, and you have a say in what you’re growing into.
Never underestimate the power of community; empower those around you to be their best selves.
Change is scary, but fear is not anything that can’t be overcome with the help of friends, and a conviction that what comes after is truly, really good.
The status quo is not the sum of your character. You are more than a cog in a machine.
So I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten over this yearbook notion of “don’t ever change,” and to be honest, I don’t think that I want to. After all, it’s an integral part of the Christian story as well. Our roles change, as did many others’ before us. Saul to Paul. Sarai, the barren to Sarah, the mother of many nations.
You have a place. And if you feel like that’s a lie right now, then make a place for yourself. Make yourself a place to grow.
Plant your feet. Pretend you’re a seed.