Every now and then, I decided that I’d like to write a post about one specific character and what makes them stand out, either to me personally or to general audiences. Let’s start with Princess Atta from Pixar’s second animated film, A Bug’s Life.
Compared to other beloved Disney and Pixar characters, Princess Atta isn’t exactly a household name. A Bug’s Life itself doesn’t get too much attention from Disney anymore. Nonetheless, I think Atta’s pretty interesting when you compare her to some of Disney’s other princesses and love interests in talking animal movies.
Before Merida came on to the scene and reminded us that a princess has more responsibilities than dancing, singing, and looking pretty, Pixar gave us Princess Atta. Her mother, the Queen, rules the colony on Ant Island. During A Bug’s Life, Atta has to learn how to be a queen herself and she’s not very good at it. Or is she?
Unlike other Strong Female Characters, Atta isn’t reluctant to lead because she’d rather go off and do something else. She genuinely wants to be a good queen. That’s her whole problem. She’s so nervous about the possibility of failure that she doesn’t inspire much confidence in anybody but her mother and Flik. I really like the scene where she opens up to Flik for the first time and tells him about what’s going on inside her head:
“I know what everyone really thinks. […] Everyone. The whole colony. Nobody really believes I can do this job. It’s like…they’re all watching me. Just…just…”
And Flik finishes with, “Waiting for you to screw up.”
A Bug’s Life never confirms or denies whether the ant colony feels that way about Atta. The opening scene shows one Council member calming her down and two others commenting that the Queen has “enough on her plate already, training her daughter.” However, they do credit her with the idea to send Flik off to the city and cheer the plan to build the bird when she encourages them to do it. So it might be all inside her head. We just don’t know if Atta’s assessment is accurate or not, any more than we know how real people view us. So, nice touch by Pixar.
Going off of that, it’s neat how Atta gets to have her own character arc that’s related to Flik’s, but isn’t solely based around falling in love with him. She has her own family and her own goals. Though she does come to admire Flik and treat him better, and his actions incite her character development, it’s all about Atta gaining confidence in herself. She comes to like Flik because of what he does for the colony. She gets aggravated by his antics mostly when she thinks they’re hurting the colony (and when they reflect poorly on her). More than anything else, she wants what’s best for her people.
Additionally, Atta is aware that her own insecurities cause problems and tries to fix them. In the aforementioned scene where she talks to Flik and he finishes her sentence about screwing up, that’s when she realizes that he deals with her fears every day. He knows that nobody likes him and he knows that no matter how hard he tries to make things better, he still makes mistakes. So Atta apologizes for the way she’s treated him in the past and tries to make amends.
Think about it: when does that ever happen in Disney films, or any animated family films? How often do we see a female character admitting that she’s flawed and apologizing for it, especially to her love interest? It usually doesn’t happen even when they have flaws. Mulan didn’t apologize to the army; they needed to apologize to her. Tiana didn’t have to apologize to Naveen, nor did Pocahontas ever apologize to anybody, or Jasmine, or Belle, or Cinderella. Most of the time, they’re victims in some way and others need to help them and/or learn to appreciate them better.
Oh, and Atta saves Flik twice in the third act, not the other way around. She flies in front of Hopper to stop him from squishing Flik, then outflies all of his friends when Hopper grabs Flik and takes off. Flik ultimately comes up with the plan to kill Hopper once and for all, but he couldn’t have done it without Atta.
As a kid, I didn’t think much of Atta and couldn’t understand why Flik fell in love with her, when, by her own admission, she wasn’t very nice to him. But as an adult, I admire how Pixar tried to do something different with this type of character: the princess who isn’t good at being a princess and the love interest who needs to learn to appreciate the protagonist better. The writers treat her like a person (well, an ant) with her own goals and struggles, and as a result, her decisions feel more natural and less like “we need her to do/say this thing because that’s what this type of character does.”
So, kudos to you, Pixar. Thank you for not taking us down Road of the “Strong Female Character” and giving us interesting, more layered female characters instead.