To bee, or not to bee, that is the question.
In DreamWorks' animated Bee Movie, Barry B. Benson, a college grad set to begin a humdrum life in New Hive City, is asking Big Questions. He's not sure he wants to spend the rest of his days on an assembly line, stirring honey, or testing new swat helmets. There's a world out there, and he wants to explore it.
Based on an idea that Jerry Seinfeld blurted out during a lull in conversation with Steven Spielberg a few years ago, Bee Movie features the voice (and a few digitally rendered facial tics) of the famous comedian, and a bit of the gently nutty humor that made his eponymous sitcom one of the greatest shows in the history of television. Alas, it really is just a bit of that loopy humor working its way into Bee Movie - along with a string of silly bee puns and a story line that involves courtroom litigation, a wayward 747 and, yes (shocking!) interspecies romance.
The romantic angle comes when Seinfeld's Barry joins up with a squadron of "pollen jocks" to fly through New York's Central Park - a swooping aeronautical sequence that's the visual high point of this family-friendly film. After getting stuck on an errant tennis ball, Barry finds himself arcing through the apartment window of a lovely flower-shop owner, Vanessa (the voice of Renée Zellweger). She saves his life, he breaks the hivedom's number-one rule - don't talk to humans - and the next thing you know, Vanessa has dumped her boyfriend (Patrick Warburton) to hang out with this blue-eyed bee in black-and-yellow sneakers.
The thing that brings Bee Movie into the courtroom (where Oprah Winfrey is the presiding judge and John Goodman the blustery, Southern-fried attorney) is Barry's discovery that the human race has long been stealing, and consuming, bees' honey. He wants to put a stop to it - and to the shameless marketing perpetrated by folks like Ray Liotta, who has his own specialty label of primo honey. The Liotta gag is pretty amusing, as is another in which Barry calls Sting to the stand to accuse him of shamelessly appropriating "bee culture" for his name. Barry blurts out Sting's real-life moniker, Gordon M. Sumner, with accusatory glee.
Before it heads into litigious spheres, Bee Movie's plot closely hews to that of Antz and other animated insect fare where a lone bug tries to break free of a conformist society. Then things kind of go kablooey, with the trial, and the misadventure with a passenger jet, and some funny cameos from a jive mosquito (voiced by Chris Rock).
Bee Movie, directed by Simon J. Smith and Steve Hickner, has the vibrant color palette of a top-flight CG cartoon. The key players among the swarm of bees have readily identifiable characteristics (funny hair, black-rim glasses, a prosthetic stinger), and the humans walk and talk with an exaggerated, cartoon-y charm.
Bee Movie is not Shrek, and it is not Ratatouille either (by far the standout computer-animated feature of the year). But it has enough buzzing wit and eye-popping animation to win over the kids - and probably more than a few parents, too.
Bee Movie *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Simon J. Smith and Steve Hickner. With the voices of Jerry Seinfeld, Renée Zellweger, Matthew Broderick, Patrick Warburton, John Goodman, Chris Rock and Oprah Winfrey. Distributed by DreamWorks Animation.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (mild innuendo, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or email@example.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.