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Bzzzt! Looking Back at Jerry Seinfeld’s Oddly Charming, Bizarro Bee Movie

Bee-Jerry takes the fight to humans in DreamWorks’ offbeat animated tale of honey vs. money.

By Benjamin Bullard
Martin Benson (Barry Levinson), Barry B. Benson (Jerry Seinfeld), and Janet Benson (Kathy Bates) stand around a breakfast table in Bee Movie (2007).

Equally true back in 1997 as it is today, one thing that distinctively sets Bee Movie apart from most other animated films is its star actor’s complete lack of extra affect just because he happens to be voicing a cute cartoon.

Conceived by Jerry Seinfeld, co-written by his comedian pals, and released at the very height of his hit NBC sitcom’s long-lived popularity, the DreamWorks Animation flick is even more accessible than Seinfeld’s 1990s Must See TV mainstream gig — even if it remains a sort of pleasant outlier among big-budget animated movies for its benignly bug-y premise and stubbornly on-brand Seinfeld personality.

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Bee Movie: Jerry Seinfeld’s cross pollination between sitcom & family animation

Forget for a minute that we’re playing in a fuzzy, buzzy insect fantasyland where bee society mimics humans’ and the stuffy legal system presumes that even bugs have standing in the courts. Bee Movie feels like a Jerry Seinfeld joint through and through, not least because it taps his usual lineup of go-to comedy bits (the New York City setting, the breezy laissez-faire observational humor, and an abiding affection for cars — even if they’re the thumb-sized sort that whisk bees to and fro in their highly-evolved hive city-state).

But Bee Movie also feels uniquely Seinfeld-esque for a more fundamental reason. In spite of his spindly insect legs and two-toned apian stripe-suit, Barry B. Benson — the movie’s leading bee — is essentially another analogue for Seinfeld’s real-life personality. Rather than evolving Seinfeld’s funny features into something that steps wide from his familiar comedy persona, Barry’s job throughout this flick is to stand in as only a lightly fictionalized yellow-and-black version of Seinfeld himself.

It takes mere minutes into Bee Movie’s goofy but well-paced plot for viewers to realize that voicing a cartoon character doesn’t hand Seinfeld some kind of no-holds-barred license to cut loose from his signature entertainment traits. Seinfeld delivers every word of Barry’s dialogue in the same voice you’d expect him to use if he were playing a weekend stand-up stint in an arena somewhere near you. Fortunately, though, that’s no bad thing. Just as Seinfeld did on, well, Seinfeld, Barry serves as the stable, regular-guy nucleus amid a supporting constellation of actors whose crazier qualities are free to bounce all over the place.

Sweet as honey: The Bee Movie story & cast

Adam Flayman (Matthew Broderick) and Barry B. Benson (Jerry Seinfeld) wear hardhats in the hive in Bee Movie (2007).

Those supporting stars are terrific too, from Chris Rock voicing a down-but-not-out mosquito named Mooseblood to John Goodman as a portly lawyer with a Southern drawl who’s determined to jowl a jury into taking humanity’s side. Heck, since we’ve already droned on about courts and juries at this point, it’s probably worth pointing out Bee Movie’s main story beat here: In a horrifying, Matrix-like moment of discovery, Barry learns that humans imprison bees in hives (unlike his happy, free-growing colony near Central Park) — and, worse still, that they co-opt his kindred bees’ hard work by stealing their honey and converting its many uses into cold, hard human cash.

Rather than follow his family’s wishes and committing to a lifelong bee career within the hive, Barry decides he just can’t abide humanity’s cold appropriation of bee-kind’s industrious labor, and files a civil suit that aims to keep people’s hands off his species’ prized product for good. That, in turn, leads to its own cascading cavalcade of unintended bad consequences. But the real delight in watching Barry’s plans crash and burn is the time it affords his almost-romantic relationship with Vanessa Bloome — an aspiring florist (and actual human) voiced by Renée Zellweger — to blossom into something kind of sweet.

In a movie populated by talking insects, it should probably seem odd that one of the ho-hum humans runs away with the voice acting show. But Zellweger singlehandedly gives Bee Movie a heart, even amid the peculiar Seinfeld brand of comedy that already was infamous for keeping real feelings at arm’s length. As Vanessa, she deftly navigates a family-friendly obstacle course of vast emotional range, a feat that Seinfeld and the rest of the movie’s writing team perhaps instinctively intuited that Zellweger was uniquely equipped to achieve.

That’s by no means a dig at the rest of Bee Movie’s eclectic (but excellent) voice acting cast, which features some genuinely hilarious cameo turns from Sting, Oprah Winfrey, producer Barry Levinson, and the late Larry King and Ray Liotta. In addition to Rock, Zellweger, Goodman, and Seinfeld, the broader Bee Movie casting list reads like a who’s-who yearbook page filled with Seinfeld's 1990s comedy friends.

There’s tons of fun to be found in figuring out (with no peeking!) where stars like Megan Mullally, Michael Richards, John DiMaggio, and even Matthew Broderick appear in the film. Though to be fair, there’s absolutely no mystery to Seinfeld veteran Patrick Warburton’s role as Vanessa’s bumbling human boyfriend Ken; he sounds exactly like Seinfeld’s David Puddy (and like Warburton's character Kronk in The Emperor’s New Groove, if we’re being totally honest.)

Some contemporary Seinfeld TV fans came away from Bee Movie’s theatrical run slightly disappointed that it didn’t swing for more distant and ambitious comedic fences, that it actually was nothing more or less than a sweet, appropriately funny, and totally family-friendly entry in DreamWorks’ expanding animated feature-film catalog. But more than 25 years on from its release, Bee Movie’s charms are perhaps a bit easier to see. It looks as terrific as any animated movie that’s being made today, it tells a simple and relatable story, and it serves as an outlying oddity of Seinfeld’s entertainment output that — when you really step back and take Barry B. Benson at face value — maybe isn’t such a drastic Seinfeld outlier after all.

Buzz over to Peacock now to catch Bee Movie, streaming here.