A Bug's Life is the most readily-overlooked of Pixar films, and I'd be lying if I pretended that I couldn't figure out why. After a decade and a half of riches, the 1998 film (the studio's second feature) can't help but seem unduly modest in every aspect of its writing. The story is perfectly ordinary - it's yet another riff on the basic Seven Samurai model - the jokes are largely ordinary and a bit shticky, the characters go through the most expected possible journeys. But it is a greatly important film: it's where Pixar proved that it had something to it besides novelty, and that the enormous success of Toy Story in 1995 augured for a real lifespan for this whole fully-rendered computer animation thing. Indeed, A Bug's Life was only the third CGI animated feature made in America, and would have been second if Jeffery Katzenberg wasn't hellbent on beating it to theaters with the transparent knock-off Antz, the first of many "fuck you" Valentines he'd deliver to the Walt Disney Company with his new DreamWorks Animation.

It's not true, of course, that A Bug's Life was the gatekeeper that needed to succeed for any and all further Pixar films to exist; Toy Story 2 was already in production, after all. But A Bug's Life did prove that Pixar's creative trust had the chops to be more than just a Toy Story factory, and demonstrated the studio's commitment to constantly challenging itself. Technologically and stylistically, the transition from Toy Story to A Bug's Life is probably the single biggest leap in aesthetic quality made by any individual Pixar film: while the 1995 picture shows its age in every implausibly smooth wood surface and rigid piece of cloth (to say nothing of its hideous human characters), A Bug's Life still looks pretty great out of a few aberrations here and there, most notably the surface texture of some of its insect characters, and generally feels like the baseline from which all of Pixar's subsequent triumphs have developed, much more so than Toy Story does.

That said, the studio's films are at least as beloved for the high quality of their storytelling as for the beauty and complexity of their images, and this is where A Bug's Life simply can't hold pace with most of its successors, though this speaks more highly of Pixar's run of masterpieces from 2001-2010 than it diminishes A Bug's Life in any particular way. Born out of the legendary lunch meeting with Pixar's top heads pitching the ideas that would make up most of their output through 2008's WALL·E, A Bug's Life's story, credited to John Lasseter (who directs), Andrew Stanton (who co-directs), and Joe Ranft, centers on an ant colony on a small island in a dry riverbed, where we meet the standard-issue ambitious outcast with ideas too big for his hidebound community, Flik (Dave Foley), whose attempts to make life better for all have been hell on Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), currently in the last stages of taking control of the colony over from her aged mother (Phyllis Diller). When Flik's latest invention manages to destroy the entire food offering the ants have left for the tyrannical grasshopper leader Hopper (Kevin Spacey), Atta and the other ant leaders are more than happy to ship Flik off on a mission to find warrior bugs to defend the colony, hoping to keep him out ofthe way while they work double-time to accede to the grasshoppers' demands.

In the big city - a collection of boxes outside of a trailer - Flik finds no warriors, though he thinks he has: instead, the band of lost souls he stumbles across are the refugees from a crappy circus run by hapless P.T. Flea (John Ratzenberger, Pixar's good luck charm). These include angry male ladybug Francis (Denis Leary), sad sack walking stick Slim (David Hyde Pierce), upbeat black widow spider Rosie (Bonnie Hunt), hammy magician Manny the praying mantis (Jonathan Harris) and his assistant/wife Gypsy the moth (Madeline Kahn), hungry caterpillar Heimlich (Ranft), sweet rhinoceros beetle Dim (Brad Garrett), and incomprehensible pill bug twins Tuck and Roll (both voiced by Michael McShane). Under Flik's leadership, they concoct a plan to fight the grasshoppers, and all the beats you would expect turn up: Atta and the rest learn of the deception, Flik becomes a greater outcast than ever, Hopper doubles down on his demands, and eventually Flik is able to redeem himself by saving the day.

In the most abstract strokes, this is just about the commonest set of personal stakes a children's movie can adopt for itself. And make no mistake, A Bug's Life is a children's movie. Years of Pixar movies blurring the line between movies mostly for kids and families, versus movies that are kind of for adults but kids can enjoy them (and in the case of The Incredibles and Ratatouille, traipsing right over that line) have made it hard to remember that initially, they made no real claims to that kind of sophistication. And while I regret the implications of the word "unsophisticated" is exactly the adjective to describe A Bug's Life, from its paint-by-numbers character motivations to its easy and surprisingly lowbrow humor: there are more potty jokes here than in any other Pixar movie, though given how many of them contain no potty jokes at all, that's not a huge bar to clear.

All of that being the case, the film has the basic decency to be an extraordinarily good version of an undistinguished children's movie. The finished script, by Stanton and Don McEnery & Bob Shaw, is characterised by crisp dialogue and strong jokes, and the layers of callbacks and internal echoes give it a nice overall shape that strengthens Flik and Atta's arcs; the random asides that play on the reality that we're watching insects living like humans are generally cute rather than actively smart, but I cannot lie: I chuckled at things like a fly grousing "I've only got 24 hours to live and I'm not wasting them here" in '98 and I continue to do it in 2015. And the light humor is aided enormously by the cast, made up disproportionately of sitcom veterans (Richard Kind and Edie McClurg also show up), who thus have exactly the right skill set to make lines and scenarios that you can see coming from quite a distance still play with honesty and energy and feel like they're coming from the characters, not from the writing room.

And again, film looks pretty great, too. The filmmakers' fascination with a scaled-down world, what that means to lighting and texture, is the first great experiment in finding the realism in fantastic setting that makes Pixar's films the most physically authentic animated features in the world. Just the way that clover and blades of grass filter light is enough to make the film look truly marvelous and rich, and that's not even the most conspicuously beautiful lighting effect that the film has to offer. It's a bit baffling that this carefully researched and highly thoughtful attempt at making a realistic miniature world would be in service to such a weird misrepresentation of ant society. Even Antz, which is literally a movie about what would happen if Woody Allen was an ant, comes at least slightly closer to correctly representing how ants function, which for starters involves having six limbs and not coming in shades of blue and lavender. Not till Bee Movie nine years later would a film get insect society so palpably wrong as a basic condition of having a narrative.

But it is, in fairness, a cartoon riffing on the old "Grasshopper and the Ants" fable in a thoroughly unexpected way, so realism is probably the wrong complaint. And by creating a race of fantasy creatures that it calls ants for no reason, A Bug's Life (last nitpick: ants aren't bugs) succeeds in portraying simple situations with warm characters whose relationships, though they mostly come right off the shelf (the simple commoner charms the princess with his bravery? YOU DON'T SAY.), are treated with utter sincerity and a glancing touch. There's no question that this is near the bottom of Pixar's output, but it didn't know that it would be competing with those other films, and on its own terms, it's an entirely beguiling little adventure that advancing technology and a vastly different marketplace haven't robbed of its merits.