Jerry Seinfeld will always be remembered for creating a brilliant and beloved television show about…nothing. His unbreakable rule was “no learning, no hugging.” Popular sitcoms had always been about learning and hugging and “very special episodes.” But Seinfeld created four intensely self-absorbed characters and if we did not exactly care about them, we were captivated by them. Now, he and some of the “Seinfeld” show writers have created an animated movie aimed at children. There is some hugging and learning involved but it is still as close to being about nothing as it can be.
Seinfeld provides the voice of Barry B. Benson, a bee who is horrified to discover that humans have appropriated honey. So, with the help of a sweet florist named Vanessa Bloome (voice of Renee Zellwegger), he files a lawsuit. Even the thundering arguments to the jury made by Layton T. Montgomery (voice of John Goodman), representing all of the food companies, cannot hide the justice of Barry’s cause. But the consequences of his retrieval of all the world’s honey are more devastating to both the bee and human communities than he could have imagined.It all works as light entertainment, despite the sometimes uneasy juxtaposition of three very different forces. The sparkling Dreamworks animation has everything we expect from CGI, gorgeous textures, imaginative details, and swooping perspectives. Other than Chris Rock’s terrific mosquito, the supporting cast voice talent ranges from serviceable (Kathy Bates and Barry Levinson as Barry’s parents, Patrick Warburton as Vanessa’s cloddish beau) to stunt (Oprah Winfrey as the judge, Larry King as “Bee Larry King”).
More important, the movie feels off-kilter, with more attention on the details than on the narrative. Seinfeld’s observational humor is relegated to the edges of a lightweight story that relies on elements we’ve seen too many times before, from the slick lawyer trying to look less slick with a Southern accent and a pair of suspenders to an emergency plane landing guided by a Karen Black-style amateur and the overall themes of the individual who wants to be different but has to learn what it means to be part of a team.
The jokes distract from the story and the characters instead of propelling them forward or giving us any insights. Seinfeld could connect to us better back when he was riffing on airplane peanuts and waiting to get into a restaurant. His jokes are now a little bit too inside. Kids may be able to understand why it is funny that a bee feels infringed upon by the nickname of former Police frontman Sting. But some of the other jokes require not just a knowledge of show business arcania but an interest in it. Kids will not get the humor of Ray Liotta as a celebrity honey-distributor appearing in court grabbing his Emmy and many adults will be confused as well.
There is, as to be expected, a lot of “bee humor,” with the inevitable reference to the old legend that according to the science of aerodynamics, a bee cannot fly. Like a bee, this movie appears to be awkwardly constructed. But like a bee, it manages to move along. In this case, the result is pleasant, if unmemorable.
Parents should know that the movie has some comic violence and cartoon peril along with very mild sexual references and brief potty humor.
Families who see this movie should talk about its two morals – one is about the importance of thinking for yourself and the other is about the importance of cooperating with a group. How does the story make both points? What is the best way to figure out when to do which? Families may also want to learn more aobut bees, pollination, and honey-making. 2000 Cornell University study concluded that the direct value of honey bee pollination to U.S. agriculture is more than $14.6 billion. And a recent problem called Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder has posed a real-life threat even more dire than that in the movie.
If you like this, try: “A Bug’s Life” and The Ant Bully. And believe it or not, Cary Grant once made a movie about a boy with a performing caterpillar called “Once Upon a Time.” And don’t forget to watch the Tournament of Roses!