Perhaps devoted fans of Jerry Seinfeld will find this animated movie, which he co-wrote and provides the lead voice for (playing bumblebee Barry B. Benson), charming, but to this viewer “Bee Movie” isn’t quite as funny as “The Swarm.” It’s inoffensive but bland, neither frisky nor imaginative enough to merit even its short ninety-minute running time.
The lack of energy in the picture can be measured by the fact that Barry’s best pal is voiced by the almost preternaturally wan Matthew Broderick, as Adam Flayman (even the names are uninteresting), who, as the picture opens, is graduating along with him and preparing to enter the job market. Of course there’s only one place to work—the honey corporation—and though Adam is content with the news that once he chooses a particular task he’ll be stuck with it for the rest of his life (without even a single vacation), to Barry that’s just not enough. So he cadges an invitation from the squadron of pollen-collectors to fly out of the hive with them and see the world before settling down.
But the trip outside leads Barry into trouble, from which he’s saved by kindly florist Vanessa (Renee Zellweger, not much more ingratiating than Broderick). He’s so grateful that he breaks the cardinal bee rule not to talk to humans—he just can’t refrain from thanking her. Soon they’re buddies, much to the consternation of her dumb-as-an-ox boyfriend Ken (Patrick Warburton, as usual overdoing the obnoxiousness). But he’s shocked to learn that humans are stealing the bees’ honey for their own purposes, and so brings suit against the big honey companies. Before long he’s facing no-holds-barred corporate attorney Layton T. Montgomery (John Goodman, way over the top) in court before Judge Bumbleton (Oprah Winfrey, totally anonymous). He wins, but the effect on both the insect and the human worlds is disastrous, and Barry and his friends must make things right in a flamboyant but strangely flat finale.
“Bee Movie” is more familiar than clever, and at times—as in the “romantic triangle” involving Vanessa, Ken and Barry—it actually borders on the creepy. For the most part the writing (involving no fewer than five guys besides Seinfeld) is pedestrian apart from a very occasional good zinger, and when it tries for something outrageous—as in a misguided cameo with Ray Liotta playing himself—it gets worse. Things pick up in the few moments when Chris Rock shows up as a loudmouth mosquito, but even there a lame lawyer joke ruins things; and Rock’s contribution is counterbalanced by a truly dreary scene featuring a bee Larry King, who turns out to be every bit as irritating as the real article. Visually the picture is nothing special, either: the animation is about of “Jimmy Neutron” quality, and the direction by Simon J. Smith and Steve Hickner is slack, with relatively few sequences that rise above the mundane (most notably Barry’s initial flight out into Central Park). And surprisingly Seinfeld’s voice work lacks distinction; simply put, he makes Barry a pretty boring little buzzer.
Toward the end of “Bee Movie,” as everything seems to be going wrong, Seinfeld/Barry says, “I’ve made a terrible mistake. This is a total disaster, and it’s all my fault.” Those words would be way too harsh to apply to his movie, but “mediocre” certainly springs to mind. Of DreamWorks’ two animated insect flicks, “Bee” lands decisively in second place, far behind “Antz” (where Woody Allen made a far more engaging hero than Jerry does). And if you add Disney’s “A Bug’s Life” into the equation, it falls still further behind. Especially in the year when “Ratatouille” showed us how good an animated movie could be, a highly-promoted one as uninspired as this is a major disappointment. “Bee” barely earns a C.