Friday, November 16, 2007

Chatting with one of the minds behind 'Bee Movie'

About three years ago, Andy Robin, a former “Seinfeld” writer, got a call from Jerry Seinfeld asking if he wanted to help him write an animated movie about bees. Over the next few years he helped develop and refine the material that would shape the box office hit, “Bee Movie.”

“I would go down to New York a couple days a week and write with Jerry, and starting about a year or two ago I started to go out to Los Angeles to work on it,” said Robin in a recent phone interview with The Conway Daily Sun.
Writing took place in a small room with just Robin and Seinfeld one on one, but later other writers — Spike Feresten and Barry Marder — joined the team.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Robin. “There is nobody like him. He’s one of a kind. If I can make Jerry laugh, that is the best feeling in the world.”

Robin first joined the Seinfeld team through an encounter on “Saturday Night Live.”

“I had spent a year (as a writer) on 'Saturday Night Live,' and when Jerry hosted the show, Adam Sandler actually passed along a spec script that I had written to Jerry,” said Robin. "It was at a time when they were looking for writers, one of those rare times when there was a window open for writers. So they had me do a freelance script, and that was 'The Junior Mint.'"

Robin became a staff writer the following season and eventually brought on his college buddy, Gregg Kavet. Recently the Robin and Kavet writing team wrote and directed their first feature, the New Hampshire based “Live Free or Die.”

With “Bee Movie,” Robin found the writing process much more leisurely than his time on “Seinfeld,” and there was time to test the material and see how things played.

“Because it was done over a few years, you could really tinker with it a lot, see how it played for audience, see what was working and what wasn’t,” said Robin. “The animation people put together early versions of things so you could see if you liked how things were working.”

“Bee Movie” is coming into a market that is over-saturated with computer animated features and is entering the game 12 years after the groundbreaking “Toy Story” and six year’s after “Shrek” set the standard for the wink-wink nudge-nudge brand of self referential in-joke animated features that play on both an adult and kid level.

Those expecting Seinfeld to reinvent the animated movie in the same way he helped redefine the sitcom will be disappointed, but. then again, those are high expectations to live up to.

“Bee Movie” starts out with Seinfeld’s Barry B. Benson unsure he wants to dedicate his whole life to working one job for his bee hive, which is a giant city/corporation whose sole purpose is to create honey. According to Robin, it was Seinfeld’s idea to use the hive as a city allegory.

“He’s a New Yorker, it is what he knows best and it is easier to write things about something you know well,” said Robin. "Because bees have all these subdivisions of labor, the hive really did seem like a good metaphor for a big city.”

It has become a tradition in animated films, especially of late, to have a hero who doesn’t fit in with his family or species, but through his rebellion ultimately finds his place. This was the theme also at the core of this summer’s “Ratatouille,” a better, more tightly woven film than “Bee Movie,” but Seinfeld’s foray into animation is by no means a disaster. “Bee Movie” may not reinvent the wheel, but it at least changes the tire on some old formulas.

When Barry gets outside the hive, he meets a florist named Vanessa (Renee Zelleweger), who saves him from death by Timberland boot. Despite strict bee guidelines not to talk to humans, Barry begins speaking with Vanessa, and, through their friendship, he discovers that humans are stealing honey from his bee brethren. Barry decides to sue the entire human race.

This lawsuit premise is oddly inspired and gives the otherwise standard but fun "Bee Movie" its own flavor. It also allows for an amusing courtroom sequence featuring a broadly drawn prosecutor voiced by John Goodman and celebrity witnesses including Ray Liotta and Sting.

“Courtroom scenes are just kind of funny to us,” said Robin. “We did a few of them on ‘Seinfeld.’ It just seemed funny to have these crazy interrogations of Sting and Ray Liotta.”

And these cameo interrogations are funny for adults, but they will go over the heads of kids. The film's one-liners are almost always pitched to adults. Even so, “Bee Movie” is brightly animated with a cleverly realized hive and some fun action sequences such as Barry’s ride on a tennis ball, a couple battles with human adversaries and ride a on a windshield that features a hilarious chat with Chris Rock as a mosquito with a hunger for moose blood.

Barry and his friends and family — voiced well by the likes of Matthew Broderick, Kathy Bates and filmmaker Barry Levinson —are a cute bunch of bees, and, as Robin noted, kids want to root for them. So while the adult and kid humor aren’t always seamlessly integrated, there’s still enough here to keep just about every age group happy.

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