There’s no shortage of movies featuring cute, cuddly, frequently anthropomorphized for your enjoyment. Insects, however, are a tougher sell. They’re small, squishy and if they’re around you, you’d probably prefer them not to be. Some people, of course, can’t get enough of them: as the new documentary “Beetle Queen of Tokyo” reminds us, besides your assorted entomologists and collectors, there’s a long history of fascination with the subject in Japan. In their honor, then, here’s seven movies that look the insect right in the face rather than shirking away.
“Mr. Bug Goes To Town” (1941)
The second and final feature produced by the Fleischer brothers (best known for the “Betty Boop” and “Popeye” cartoons) after their 1939 flop “Gulliver’s Travels,” “Mr. Bug Goes To Town” seemingly isn’t very different from what you’d do now if you were trying to make an appealing animated movie for kids about insects: it’s full of puns, lightweight action thrills and happy endings for all but the bad guys. The difference is the frame of reference: this is the anthropomorphized insect world as a miniature of wholesome, small-town American life, with profanity-lite puns like “Gee weeds!” and the soda shop (“honey shop”) just around the corner. The collision of late-’30s normative values (from a wholesome America that never really existed outside of the “Andy Hardy” series) and the insect world can really mess with your head.
“Woman In the Dunes” (1964)
The protagonist of “Woman in the Dunes” is entomologist Niki Jumpei (Eiji Okada), which must be some kind of first. The movie’s best remembered for its remarkable shots of desert dune sands in motion: they shift and glide with remarkably menacing tactility, the opposite of the equally memorable flat heat of “Lawrence of Arabia.” But that Jumpei is an entomologist isn’t a throwaway (even if Kobo Abe, author of the novel, really was an insect collector). At the beginning of the movie, he’s poking away at an insect trying to hide in the desert sand and laughing — an apt set-up for what happens when he himself is trapped at the bottom of a hole and is himself made a subject of study, one initially treated with scarcely less compassion. As for the rest…well, you really should see it. (Trailer mildly NSFW.)
“The Hellstrom Chronicle” (1971)
“The earth was created not with the gentle caress of love, but with the brutal violence of rape.” With those non-threatening words commences the narration of this odd combination of ground-breaking nature doc and bizarro paranoia. Insects taking over the world have always been a popular alarm bell, but “The Hellstrom Chronicle” took it a step beyond your average B-movie by dropping a fictional scientist in the middle of a “real” documentary. Dr. Niels Hellstrom (Lawrence Pressman) walks through parks and rants about how insects are going to outlast all of us — something that considerably annoyed Roger Ebert, who felt like if the insects really were going to get us all there really was no reason not just to enjoy our remaining time. But viewers craving the sight of insects juxtaposed with catchy phrases like “a fetus with a capability to dominate all” — and would like the finest in early ’70s synths to go with it — this is where you need to turn.
“There’s a bug in the system.” Before airlines became completely computer-based and bugs could wreak havoc on your transit, computer and lord knows what else, Terry Gilliam had the wit to literalize one of the most instantly comprehensible technological terms in one of the most glamorous cameos ever awarded a fly, not to mention a far more elegant demonstration of the chaos effect than that old saying about the butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane. There’s a fly buzzing around the room, the anonymous engineer slaps it in irritation, it falls onto the print-outs…and Harry Tuttle’s life will never be the same. (The insect, let’s note, is far more elegant than many of the faces we come across throughout the film — see above.) At least the poor insect didn’t get tangled with Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly.”
“Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” (1989)
“Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” is for its generation of children what the original “Clash of the Titans” was for theirs, only with the humorless beefcake leading men replaced by the (still dearly missed) Rick Moranis. He plays Prof. Wayne Szalinski, whose invention zaps his offspring down to blade-of-grass size, forcing them to fight their way through the jungle that is the family backyard (shades of “Blue Velvet,” but we’ll let it go). All things considered, “Honey” is pretty upbeat about our little multi-legged friends: a bee saves the kids inadvertently, and everyone befriends “Anty,” the giant ant who valiantly fends off a scorpion and dies from the poison. The best thing about the movie’s sight gags isn’t actually those creatures (it’s that blue Lego they sleep in at night, the telltale sign of a suburban backyard with small children), but they’re still pretty great and plenty handmade.
“The Next Karate Kid” (1994)
After Hilary Swank became a two-time Academy Award-winning actress, “The Next Karate Kid” was mostly looked upon as just one of those stumbling blocks up-and-coming thespians have to hurdle on their way to stardom. Now, with her career strewn all over the place, it actually seems like a prescient sign of where she was headed. Regardless: in this bottomlessly silly movie, a key breakthrough moment for Swank is when she learns — at a monastery retreat — that she shouldn’t obey her first instinct and crush an offending cockroach. Instead, she should carry it in her hands back to a beaming Mr. Miyagi to demonstrate her personal growth so that she can then learn the praying mantis maneuver. Sure, whatever.
There is, finally, the underutilized option of insects as direct, targeted-attack tools. As the all-round overachiever of Rushmore Academy, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is a man of many talents, and he’s honed his skills in the Bee Keepers Club to a fine point. And if you doubt it, consider that Max — a perfect klutz in all aspects of human social interaction, and not much better in any of the arenas that don’t involve insanely specialized skills — pulls off a perfectly coordinated bee attack against arch-rival Herman Blume (Bill Murray), sticking the tube from the hive directly into Murray’s room without once getting stung. The kid knows something after all — certainly more than Irwin Allen did when he made “The Swarm.”
[Photos: “Microcosmos,” Miramax, 1996; “Mr. Bug Goes to Town,” Fleischer Studios, 1941; “Woman in the Dunes,” Toho Film, 1964; “The Hellstrom Chronicle,” Wolper Pictures, 1971; “Brazil,” Universal Pictures, 1985; “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” Disney, 1989; “The Next Karate Kid,” Columbia Pictures, 1994; “Rushmore,” Touchstone Pictures, 1998.]