Cartoonists have thoroughly explored the animal kingdom, giving anthropomorphic vigor to mice, dogs, cats, birds, donkeys, fish, pigs, bugs, dinosaurs, roadrunners, coyotes and even one big green ogre. Now it's the bees' turn in DreamWorks Animation's "Bee Movie."
Unfortunately, bees just aren't that funny. They talk funny now and then thanks to that force of comedy, Jerry Seinfeld, who co-wrote, co-produced and stars in his first animated feature. But they aren't intriguing cartoon creatures. Nor is the odd story Seinfeld and his collaborators dreamed up very inspired. The film labors too hard for its comic moments and never discovers a cartoon logic that will allow bees and humans to interact.
When "Bee Movie" opens, honey will equal money for the first week, but repeat business, so vital for animated films, is not likely to be heavy. Seinfeld's considerable and loyal following certainly will help.
Seinfeld's extraordinary humor, which propelled one of TV's most successful comedy series for nine years, is wildly cerebral and serendipitous. It's geared for making mountains out of molehills and exploring the minutiae of life in all its frustrating, explosively funny glory.
And nothing could be more cerebral than the idea of a bumble bee named Barry (voiced by Seinfeld) getting so outraged that humans are "stealing" honey for consumption and profit that he sues the human race. But do you want to see cartoon courtrooms and cartoon lawyers? Or hauling music superstar Sting (playing his cartoon self) to the stand to explain a stage name stolen from "bee culture"? It might sound funny, but it doesn't play all that funny.
Barry wins his case over a stereotypical Southern lawyer (John Goodman, playing it very broadly) so honey gets yanked from shelves, bees lose their honeymaking jobs, flowers don't get pollinated and all vegetation dies in Central Park, which in the Seinfeld world view means everywhere. So you get something you never saw on "Seinfeld" -- a moral lesson, in this case an ecological one.
Directors Simon J. Smith and Steve Hickner struggle to make bee bodies into a thing of comedy. About as far as they get are antenna becoming mobile phones and Barry's best buddy, Adam Flayman (Matthew Broderick), replacing his lost stinger with a plastic toothpick sword. Flights through the park and canyons of Manhattan's high rises add a bit of zip. Barry also gets stuck to a tennis ball that is then volleyed back and forth. But throughout you sense the strain to get any comic action going.
Barry violates the bee code of behavior when he speaks to a florist named Vanessa (Renee Zellweger). They then become fast friends, she encouraging his lawsuit and he courts her like a suitor and thereby upsetting her beefcake-but-no-brains boyfriend Ken (an amusing Patrick Warburton). But unlike the rat and rookie chef in "Ratatouille," there is no inherent logic to this relationship. One can't do anything for the other. Everything instead rests on the dialogue between them and the self-evident absurdity of bees and humans conversing. It probably would play better on "A Prairie Home Companion."
Among the voice actors, Chris Rock fares best in, interestingly, a very short appearance as a fast-talking mosquito. Kathy Bates and director Barry Levinson have fun with Barry's stick-to-honey parents, while Larry King nicely kids himself as a Bee Larry King.
DreamWorks Animation SKG in association with Columbus 81 Prods.
Directors: Simon J. Smith, Steve Hickner
Screenwriters: Jerry Seinfeld, Spike Feresten, Barry Marder, Andy Robin
Producers: Jerry Seinfeld, Christina Steinberg
Production designer: Alex McDowell
Visual effects supervisor: Doug Cooper
Music: Rupert Gregson-Williams
Executive music producer: Hans Zimmer
Art director/character designer: Christophe Lautrette
Editor: Nick Fletcher
Barry B. Benson: Jerry Seinfeld
Vanessa Bloome: Renee Zellweger
Adam Flayman: Matthew Broderick
Ken: Patrick Warburton
Layton T. Montgomery: John Goodman
Mooseblood: Chris Rock
Janet Benson: Kathy Bates
Martin Benson: Barry Levinson
Running time -- 90 minutes
MPAA rating: PG