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A Real Bug’s Life is way too fake

A Real Bug’s Life is way too fake
A Real Bug's Life animal wranglers Lucia Chmurova (who's holding an insect) and Tim Cockerill create a fake shot of a city sidewalk. (Photo by Nathan Small/National Geographic)

At Disney’s Animal Kingdom outside of Orlando, I walked under the limbs of a giant and spectacular fake tree. That winding queue ended in an auditorium, home of the movie It’s Tough to be a Bug.

3D glasses on, I settled in as the curtain turned into butterflies that fluttered away. Dave Foley’s voice as the ant Flik introduced us to a parade of animated bugs.

A stinkbug released a noxious stench, and then a termite sprayed acid all over the audience. Then the real terror began.

The grasshopper villain from Pixar’s film appeared as a large audio-animatronic creature, and showed us clips of horror movies featuring large bugs. After swatting at the audience with a large, 3D flyswatter, he sprayed the audience with bug spray. The theatre became pitch black.

Then he said, “Hornets, arm your stingers and attack!” The sound of buzzing was all around us, and then one of them stabbed my back with a stinger. Children and adults alike shrieked and screamed as the same thing happened to them in their seats.

A mass of black widow spiders dropped from the ceiling before things finally calmed down. As the show ended, an announcement asked us to let roaches, beetles, and maggots exit first, and they did so by crawling under my butt—and everyone else’s, judging by the screams.

In addition to being surprisingly terrifying, this attraction was all very clever, a seamless combination of film and physical effects. It remains the best use of the A Bug’s Life IP, terrifying kids of all ages who’d paid for the privilege.

I was thinking of this fabricated, educational, and horrifying experience while watching A Real Bug’s Life, Disney+ and National Geographic’s new natural history reality series that focuses on, well, bugs. A Real Bug’s Life has taken the name and logo of the 1998 Pixar animated film, and way too much of its artificiality.

A camera is pointed at a tangle of bars and lights, on which a roach walks. The background is a graffitied wall
A cockroach walks across a metal beam on a tiny set that’s pretending to be New York City on A Real Bug’s Life (“The Big City” episode of “A Real Bug’s Life.” (Photo by Tom Oldridge/National Geographic)

Some of A Real Bug’s Life’s footage is indeed spectacular. Watch as rows of tiny baby roaches emerge from an egg, or a millipede’s legs dancing across moss in the jungle.

Other footage might as well be a Pixar movie. A CGI fly zooms around a fake diner, a camera following close behind. A bird lands next to a jumping spider on a ledge, and the spider jumps, the camera following it all the way to the sidewalk below. The spider later faces down a mantis, whose head and eyes are reflected in the spider’s own eyes.

What is real? What has been staged? And what’s just outright fake? A Real Bug’s Life’s problem is that, unlike It’s Tough to Be a Bug, it’s never clear what’s real and what may not be.

Natural history programs and documentaries are not cinéma vérité, nor do I expect them to be. Footage of multiple animals filmed over multiple days or weeks or years is stitched together to create a narrative, or to show us the range of behavior in a compact package. The sound, including any noise the animals are making, is not captured on location, but added in post-production from sound libraries.

There is a degree of artificiality that is necessary to capture the real world and present it as entertainment. Hello, reality TV! And documentaries have done just as much to twist reality as the most manipulated reality show.

The Disney film White Wilderness’s producers faked a polar bear cub’s icy slide by staging it in a studio, and also pushed lemmings off a cliff and forever gave them association with mass suicide.

Why, though, does A Real Bug’s Life need to fake a spider’s journey across a fake New York City landscape? Did the producers flood an ant colony just to capture footage of ants rescuing larvae while others create a life raft, and then dump it over the edge of a pool waterfall to film it floating around?

It turns out even shots of the pool water were faked:

A camera points at a bucket of water on which a rubber ducky and pile of ants floats; behind it is a large monitor with an image of a backyard
In “Braving the Backyard,” we see fire ants creating a raft and floating on a pool. But that was actually a bucket of water in a studio. (Photo by Alex Hemmingway/National Geographic)

A Real Bug’s Life does a truly great job of stitching these elements together. Yet it’s also so much that it gets in the way of just letting us watch. I’d love to see fire ants build a raft and float; I don’t need the fake tension of a person floating in their pool flapping their hands toward the ants.

Part of my objection is that the narratives producers have created are often rather juvenile. Perhaps that’s by design; Disney+ says “this family-friendly series shows that A Real Bug’s Life can be every bit as fantastical as any animated film.”

Even if it’s targeted at kids, I’m not sure telling kids and families about the natural world by fictionalizing it is the best idea. We’re already on shaky ground about what’s true and what is not, what is science and what is some twit spouting pseudoscience on Facebook to support their grift.

The stories are thin enough that they don’t really matter. I don’t need to see a spider looking back and forth in horror like a person trying to cross a street. I don’t need to watch an actor chew (ugh) and then fling an uneaten part of a hot dog onto a fake sidewalk for an ant to find. Just show us ants eating.

A close-up of a triangular mantis head with large eyes and tiny pupils
A Chinese mantis in A Real Bug’s Life’s first episode, ” (Photo by Jamie Thorpe/National Geographic)

The credits of the first A Real Bug’s Life episode list 10 animal wranglers, two visual effects companies, two separate physical studio locations, three stock footage companies, and a company that handled set design.

To Disney+ and NatGeo’s credit, they’ve provided images such as the ones above to press, showing the behind-the-scenes of filming—which is truly fascinating.

I guessed people walking on a New York City sidewalk were composited into footage of an ant, but never would have imagined this image came from people with shoes on their hands simulating walking next to the ant. I’d rather watch a behind-the-scenes documentary about how it was made than the actual footage itself.

While the series filmed actual ants in actual Costa Rica, for example, it also created elaborate, fake sets in studios. Even the elements of the Austin, Texas, backyard—which looks and feels much more realistic than the New York City set—were constructed. A butterfly on milkweed seems like it’s just there, but no, that was in a studio, too.

All episodes end with a disclaimer:

“Some sequences have been graphically enhanced or were filmed under controlled conditions. All scenes represent accurate animal behavior.”

That first sentence is so loaded. Filmed under controlled conditions means putting down a chunk of hot dog and releasing ants next to it to get close-up footage of the ants ripping it apart. But “graphically enhanced” is a step far beyond that, even if it is true to life.

I do appreciate what Plimsoll Productions is attempting here. They also produced Hostile Planet for NatGeo, a surprisingly brutal, violent natural history series. Both find new territory in a genre that’s been well-worn over the decades—but especially since the breakthrough footage in Planet Earth.

Casting Awkwafina as narrator was a great choice; her tone is perfectly in the space where playful and educational overlap. “Go go go! Score! Enough to feed a family of 10 thousand,” she says as a fire ant finds a crumb that’s we watched tumble to the ground in slow motion.

It’s often informative. I had no idea a roach can survive for days without its head, so I guess I should return that roach guillotine I bought on Amazon.

“Every day, mini drams are unfolding in bug world, and they totally pass us by,” Awkwafina says in the “Braving the Backyard” episode. That is a strength of A Real Bug’s Life, calling attention to part of the natural world. If only what we were seeing was more natural.

A Real Bug’s Life

A Real Bug’s Life has some beautiful images, but all the artificiality gets in the way, leaving it as an average natural history show, at best. C

What works for me:

  • Awkwafina’s narration and facts she shares
  • Truly spectacular footage of insects—assuming it’s not CGI

What could be better:

  • Clearer communication about what’s real and what’s fake
  • Fewer dopey storylines and scenes

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Happy discussing!

Andrea Jacobs

Monday 5th of February 2024

Re: A Real Bug's Life. Thank you for your work on this.The story lines can be dopey, as you said, from an adult's perspective. But this series is for kids. My fourth grade and kindergarten grandchildren are intrigued in a way they are not from typical documentaries. These little films (maybe call them realistic fiction) are giving them respect for bugs and better understanding of ecosystems. Each creature has its own superpower that helps its survival and reproduction. We have some bug books and the kids have looked up more info on the internet. My granddaughter has drawn a few bug "portraits" with colored pencils. If the next generation knows that not everything with six or eight legs must be squashed and killed, then NG and Disney will have done their job. More technical biology lessons can come in high school. We will keep watching.

Andy Dehnart

Tuesday 6th of February 2024

Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Andrea. My fear was that kids watching might conflate the fiction with reality. Hearing that it prompted your grandchildren to do more reading and learning is terrific, and the best possible outcome!