Bees rarely fly in a straight line. They hover and zigzag, with a purpose known only to the collective brain of the hive. The most genuinely apian aspect of Bee Movie, DreamWorks' new animated movie about, well, bees, is that it spends a lot of its short running time buzzing happily around, sniffing out fresh jokes wherever they may bloom. There is a plot - the usual big, elaborate story with the usual important messages about saving the planet, living together in interspecies harmony and believing in yourself - but it's a little beside the point. The real fun is the insect shtick.
The DreamWorks Animation formula, exemplified in the mighty Shrek franchise (and imitated by would-be rivals at Sony and Fox), is to charm the children with cute creatures and slapstick action while jabbing at the grown-ups with soft, pseudosophisticated pop-cultural satire. Bee Movie, directed by Simon Smith and Steve Hickner and animated by several hundred industrious drones, pushes this strategy almost to the point of dispensing with the kid stuff altogether.
There are a few splendid cartoon set pieces - including a funny, thrilling bee's-eye tour of New York, from Central Park flora to the surface of a tennis ball to the inside of a speeding car - that show off the latest computer animation techniques. But most of the film's creative energy is verbal rather than visual, and semimature rather than strictly juvenile.
Which is hardly surprising. As everyone knows by now, the leading man (and one of the screenwriters and producers) is Jerry Seinfeld, whose sitcom, almost a decade off the network air, lives on in syndication and in the endless recycling of memorable one-liners by a certain type of pathetic Gen-Xer. (Not me, though. I'm the complete opposite of every film critic you've ever met. I'm the master of my domain.)
Seinfeld provides the voice and attitude for Barry B. Benson, a young bee who has reached the stage in his accelerated bug lifestyle when he must choose a career. The hive where he lives is a highly regimented place, where the bees, conditioned by 27 million years of evolution, work without a break in the same job for their whole lives. Visually, this world resembles a sweet, sunny, corporate version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
Barry's nerdy pal, Adam (Matthew Broderick), accepts his drone future as part of the natural order of things, but Barry is a maverick, an individualist yearning to break out of the conformist world of the social insects.
He may also remind some viewers of Benjamin Braddock, the alliteratively named hero of The Graduate, a film that Bee Movie cites in a few amusing scenes. Not that Barry has an affair with a middle-aged mama bee (all bees are children of the queen, a biological fact the film notes only in passing). Instead he flies even farther from the nest, so to speak, falling in love with an actual human being, a Manhattan florist named Vanessa who speaks in the irresistibly sweet voice of Rene Zellweger.
When you stop to think about it, the prospect of romance between a bee and a person raises some potentially awkward, not to say physiologically outlandish, questions. But of course you're not supposed to think about it. The moral of the story - one of them, anyway - is that we and the bees are interdependent and that we should respect their hard work.