Freshly hatched little bee Maya (voiced by Coco Jack Gillies) is an irrepressible free-spirit who won't follow the rules of the hive. She goes wherever curiosity takes her, befriends other bugs like wise-cracking cockney grasshopper Flip (Richard Roxburgh) and questions authority at every turn. Caring bee school teacher Miss Cassandra (Justine Clarke) tries her best to guide Maya but devious royal adviser Buzzlina von Beena (Jacki Weaver) considers her a threat. When Maya discovers Buzzlina plotting to usurp the Queen (Miriam Margolyes), she ends up expelled into the wilderness. Followed by smitten classmate Willy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Maya braves the big wide world while Buzzlina orchestrates a war between the Bee kingdom and their mortal enemies: the Hornets.
This Australian-German co-production is a computer animated update of Maya the Bee, a Japanese anime serial from 1975. Although actually the second significant bee anime, following Tatsunoko studio's more harrowing Hutch the Honeybee (1970), Maya was among the earliest anime to attract western fans after it aired on the Nickelodeon channel in the early Eighties. Yet the television serial sprang from a well-regarded German children's book written by Waldemar Bonsels first adapted in 1925 as The Adventures of Maya using micro-photography of real insects to tell the story. While Bonsels was himself a noted anti-Semite who openly supported the Nazis, the cartoons based on his work adopt an interesting anti-authoritarian, anti-racist stance.
Here Maya is established as a happy nonconformist from the get-go. A wide-eyed idealist who innocently chafes at the absurdity of the beehive's well-intentioned but nonetheless oppressive rules: don't leave the hive, don't make friends with other bugs, don't play or sing. Later when Maya and Willy save a young hornet named Sting (Joel Franco) from a hungry spider they discover the hornets spin their own scary yarns about bees, a neat commentary about how different societies cultivate their own fear and propaganda. Although Maya learns life beyond the hive is not all sunshine and rainbows the plot reaffirms her belief that friendship, kindness and decency are worth bestowing on all species. As adults it is easy to be cynical about shiny, upbeat family films that trot out familiar messages like be yourself, make friends, learn to value those different from yourself. Yet when all is said and done these are lessons worth handing down to the next generation. If the script penned by live action filmmaker Fin Edquist is less than subtle at least its heart lies firmly in the right place. There is a lot to like about Maya the Bee.
In terms of technique the animation might pale by comparison with Pixar but when viewed in the context of other mid-budget animated features is artful and eye-catching. Much like the American computer animated reboot of Astro Boy (2009), the team behind Maya manage to update the original Japanese character designs without losing any of their idiosyncratic charm. The animation succeeds in capturing the sense of wonder a newborn feels on glimpsing the world for the first time with all its lustrous colours and wonders. The action sequences are modest but engaging while scenes like the bug concert at Jitterbug Hollow have a lot of charm. Maya's gentle humour is clearly aimed for the most part at toddlers although a minor subplot with two dim-witted soldier ants yields a fair few laughs. A voice cast of Aussie film staples like Richard Roxburgh, Jackie Weaver and Noah Taylor do a solid job inhabiting their roles but the star turn comes from young Coco Jack Gillies, briefly glimpsed in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). She gives a truly ebullient vocal performance as the peppy and appealing title character whose willingness to embrace all kinds of people, er, bugs pays off at the end. For that extra punch of nostalgia the film retains the original theme song.