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Bee Movie

Buzz-worthy

Bee Movie is as confused about its identity as its conflicted protagonist, Barry B. Benson. Barry is voiced by Jerry Seinfeld, who also served as the film’s primary screenwriter, and here he has created a children’s story that boasts the kind of heart his peerless sitcom proudly lacked. Even so, adults should not be disappointed. Barry’s tale, about a bee who is asked to forsake his freedom for a drone-like existence, is sharp enough to appeal to all ages.

Like Z, the Antz character voiced by another famously neurotic standup, Woody Allen, Barry isn’t ready to accept a lifetime of servitude, even if tradition dictates it. Rather than buzzing his life away in the hive, where no worker bee has enjoyed a vacation day in 27 million years, he ventures into the big city. It is there that he befriends Vanessa (Renée Zellweger), a sympathetic florist who introduces him to coffee, TiVo and pound cake. Then she makes the mistake of taking him to the supermarket.

Once there, Barry is horrified to discover that humans have turned honey into a cottage industry. Enraged, he files suit, at which point Bee Movie briefly gravitates toward satirizing the law. A strange choice for a kid’s movie, perhaps, but it pays off.

There’s an inspired courtroom scene in which celebrity defendants are forced to defend their casual exploitation of bees -- Sting, for his namesake, and a characteristically short-fused Ray Liotta, who markets his own brand of mass-produced honey when he’s not ratting out fellow goodfellas. It is a sequence driven by humor sophisticated enough to be worthy of Seinfeld’s TV show; whether that will satisfy the junior circuit is anyone’s guess.

Ultimately, it should. Bee Movie is, at its core, a coming-of-age tale about finding independence and love -- even in places as strange and overwhelming as New York City -- and it is a vibrant, joyous experience. It is visually daring, as it veers between Barry’s elaborately rendered hive and the fertile pastures of Central Park, though not as single-mindedly concerned with technical detail as DreamWorks Animation’s most valuable meal ticket, Shrek the Third.

No matter. Bee Movie is smarter, funnier and conceived with greater emotional depth, even if its comic subtext is geared more toward mature audiences.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars