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Bee Minus

My Mom doesn't see many movies every year, but she has a very sensitive "hype bone" – she can tell you when the number of TV ads for an upcoming movie has moved beyond "building buzz" and into "desperation." To her ,this means a film is too awful to be sold on its merits, so the studio is going for the blitz approach instead. Sometimes she's wrong; occasionally, excellent movies also have tremendous promotional campaigns (Jurassic Park). But most of the time she's dead-on. Of course, if you need my mother to tell you that Bee Movie has been desperately overhyped, you must have been in a coma or secret CIA prison for the last six weeks. (Likely both.) It's non-stop. And the saddest thing is, the commercials are much funnier than the movie. Short, ironic video clips are what Jerry Seinfeld does best – remember those terrific American Express ads? He's said that he intended the behind-the-scenes material we saw as "'Bee Movie' TV Juniors" to be used on the Internet, as a spoof of online video diaries from the sets of blockbuster movies. But NBC approached DreamWorks (read: Katzenberg called in a favor – a huge favor) so the spots inundated our airwaves at a rate of five to ten an hour. There were a few duds, but most of them were genuinely charming, and a couple were outright hilarious. (My favorite is probably Jerry and co-star Matthew Broderick arguing over the homoerotic undertones in the script.)

In the film, there's nothing nearly so subversive. The closest thing is a colony of bees pulling down a giant plastic bear-shaped honey container, as though it were the statue of a deposed dictator. (Good for a smirk, but hardly a guffaw.) What the ads don't show you, in fact, is that the entire second act of the movie takes place in a courtroom. Seinfeld's character, Barry B. Benson, discovers honey in a human supermarket and files suit against the honey industry for stealing the life's work of unsuspecting bees. It would be cheeky to add that hilarity en-sues, but it decidedly does not. The legal scenes are mostly talking: the kind of stuff that would make clever speculative chatter around the table at Monk's Cafe, but is entirely out of place in a kids' movie. And the film careens further off the rails from there. Bees take their first vacation in eons, living off the damages from the lawsuit, which results in a global floral cataclysm because plants aren't being pollenated. This puts Vanessa's flower shop out of business and leads to a farfetched conclusion involving a heist at the Tournament of Roses parade and a commercial jetliner being landed by bees. (If only the trial scenes had moved forward as swiftly and with as little regard for logic.) Along the way, there's a bizarre set piece about the wedge of jealousy Barry drives between Vanessa and her human boyfriend, Ken (Patrick Warburton, excellent as ever but woefully overanimated). The resulting mishmash convinces me this is not the film Seinfeld set out to make.

If you ask Seinfeld, he'll tell you he didn't set out to make any movie at all. The legend is, he was at dinner with Spielberg – the sort of meeting they apparently take frequently just to confirm Mel Gibson's worst paranoid theories – and he made an off-hand joke that an animated movie about bees would be funny under the title "Bee Movie" (since that's a Hollywood pun – albeit decades old, and unlikely to register with today's under-40 audience). Spielberg (who's a genius, but – let's face it – not known for his comedy chops) ate the idea right up, and suddenly Jerry was in meetings with Katzenberg and the whole thing was a go. Based on nothing but a title. To this day, Seinfeld says things in interviews along the lines of, "I had no idea what I was doing." (You'll notice he rarely makes reference to the finished film, nor expresses particular satisfaction with it.)

Without any inside knowledge, my conclusion from watching the movie is that Seinfeld's style simply wasn't a good fit with DreamWorks's process. Maybe his script was terrible, or maybe it was just outside their comfort zone. (Try as I might to give them the benefit of the doubt, they've proven their range to be pretty narrow.) So DreamWorks "developed" it until it looked like a movie they could make. This meant dulling the Seinfeld edge, inserting random puns and pratfalls, and adding pop-culture references (Sting, Larry King, and Ray Liotta appear as themselves – well, King is himself as a bee) and well known songs. Some of Seinfeld's observational perspective shows up (a bee struggling against the same window pane again and again), and some of his comedic dialogue breaks the mold of what you'd expect from an animated movie. But the film fails to fit together; its pieces are often struggling against one another. And large stretches of it are simply not funny. Once he was thrust into a movie with a one-word concept, my guess is Seinfeld tried to make something he would find interesting. Bees are famously social creatures, and Seinfeld is undeniably his generation's keenest observer of society. But few of his observations make the final cut, and I think that failure is partly him but mostly DreamWorks.

1 Comment (Add your comments)

BrandonMon, 11/5/07 10:27pm

This seems like a remarkably plausible theory. Well done. Your ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

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