- Buzzkill: An Animated Format doesn't Jive with Seinfeld's conspicuous avoidance of sentimentality
Starring voices of Jerry Seinfeld, Renee Zellweger, Matthew Broderick, John Goodman
Directed by Simon J. Smith, Stephen Hickner
Since Jerry Seinfeld has spent most of the last decade out of the pop-culture spotlight — perhaps bathing in his Seinfeld-syndication residual check like a lanky Scrooge McDuck — you figure he'd only dive back in if he had a really good reason. Indeed, the fervor with which he has devoted himself to promoting his animated creation Bee Movie suggests he wants to prove he still has something left in the tank. Seriously, I dare you to turn on a television this week and not find him on a talk show or pimping HP computers or otherwise making sure we know he's not just that guy who once did a show about nothing.
The animated format of Bee Movie seems both like a perfect match for Seinfeld and an unexpected choice for his big-screen debut. We know he's quick-witted and savvy, but what would he do in a genre that generally depends on sentimentality — the one thing Seinfeld conspicuously, determinedly avoided at all costs?
The result is something just about as uneven as that improbable pairing might suggest. Seinfeld provides the voice of Barry Benson, a bee just graduated from college in Hive City. He and his best pal Adam (Matthew Broderick) are faced with choosing a job they'll be required to keep their entire lives — a prospect that greatly alarms Barry. Taking a chance on a trip outside the hive before committing to a lifetime of drudgery, Barry encounters humans for the first time, including a kindly florist named Vanessa (Reneé Zellweger). He also encounters the reality that humans consume honey — and what's worse, they appear to profit from the bees' labor while offering nothing in return.
Because computer-animation bylaws apparently demand it, Bee Movie includes plenty of gags based on anthropomorphizing its bee characters. Seinfeld and his three co-writers — including a pair of veteran Seinfeld staff writers — drop in cracks about being attracted to your own cousin, or the bees' short lifespan requiring three-day college careers, or honey as hair gel. But Seinfeld also isn't afraid to drop in a sly visual reference to The Graduate or to turn the bee-world cameo by Larry King — who rivals only Jay Leno in whoring out his own ubiquity — into an extended riff on how there's also a human Larry King who looks and acts exactly the same. That's the Jerry we've come to know and love: the one who isn't afraid to make a punch line out of the word "Bee-Jesus."
In fact, Bee Movie boasts a fair number of funny individual jokes. What it lacks is an idea to tie them all together. Initially, it appears like a variation on the standard animated plot of one unique individual trying to stand out from the crowd (see: Dumbo, Antz, Happy Feet, etc.). Gradually, it morphs into a swipe at corporate avarice, with the honey company tied to "Honeyburton" and "Honron," and a blustering attorney (John Goodman) challenging Barry in court. But a third-act shift brings the whole point of the story into question. Is Seinfeld really backtracking to sing the glories of mundane existence? And did he really have to take such a tortuous path to get there that Barry and Vanessa needed to travel from New York to the Tournament of Roses Parade?
This is the ultimate frustration of Bee Movie as a film that nods to Seinfeld's own distinctive sensibilities yet can't help retreating to safe platitudes. He's daring enough that he'll introduce the potential obligatory wise-cracking sidekick — a mosquito voiced by Chris Rock — then immediately chuck him from the plot, or have fun with Ray Liotta, as a short-tempered parody of himself. But he also allows directors Steve Hickner and Simon J. Smith to squeeze in so many fast-paced action sequences — Barry winds up stuck to a tennis ball, pinwheeling through Manhattan traffic, swirling down a toilet and piloting a jet plane — that the story feels like it goes by in a blur.
Then again, perhaps that's for the best. Bee Movie feels like it should have been the animated equivalent of a Seinfeld episode: no plot per se, just a bunch of funny situations spinning out of Seinfeld's imagination. Every attempt the story makes at an overarching narrative winds up jumbled. The result is a movie about ... well, about nothing.