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Antz: The First Biggie from DreamWorks

DreamWorks Pictures and PDI bring this much-awaited CG wonder to screens this month. Jerry Beck reviews what is hoped to be another animated blockbuster.

Insects have been a standard subject of animated stories, dating back to Winsor McCay's second film How A Mosquito Operates (1912). From Ladislas Starevitch's breath-taking stop-motion silents to numerous Silly Symphonies, Merrie Melodies and Terrytoons of the `30s & `40s, the world of bugs is a familiar one to cartoon filmmakers. This fall we are presented with two computer animated "bug" movies, the second in a series of DreamWorks vs. Disney same-subject feature films (DreamWorks' Deep Impact beat Disney's Armageddon to the theaters earlier this year).

Z, a worker ant, complains to hisfriend Weaver, a soldier, in the bar. © DreamWorks LLC.

Antz is the first to arrive, and it delivers the requisite goods to be a crowd-pleasing family film. However, everything I perceived about the film, before seeing it, was generally true about the finished product. On the one hand, the film has a dark look and claustrophobic feel, plus the character design is rather ugly. On the plus side, casting Woody Allen, as the neurotic lead character, was inspired. The Film's Events The film begins promisingly enough, as "Z" (Woody Allen) explains his inferiority complex to his analyst, while staring out at the vast ant colony going through its daily routine (a stunning opening sequence). We are then introduced to the General (Gene Hackman) who controls the soldiers and worker ants and is scheming a take-over plot tied to the digging of a strategic tunnel. That night at the local bar, Z's spirits are lifted when he hears about an "Insectopia" located somewhere in the outside world. He is further transformed after meeting Princess Bala, who is secretly slumming among the workers.

Z's fleeting moment of bliss dancing

She picks Z to dance with and he falls in love. The following day Z wanders through his predictable schedule in a love-struck stupor. When he learns that the Queen will review the troops, he arranges to switch places with his soldier pal, Weaver (Sly Stallone, whose character looks somewhat like The Tick). Unfortunately for Z, the troops are immediately sent to battle, a suicide mission planned by the General, against the Termites. The battle sequences are spectacular, but not unlike the insect vs. human war in Starship Troopers. Z is the only survivor. The scene of Z surveying the battlefield, and finding the disembodied head of companion soldier Barbatus (Danny Glover) is effectively touching, sad and funny. Hailed at the colony as a war hero, Z formally meets the Queen and Bala. When it's discovered that Z is actually a worker, not a soldier, a confrontation leads Bala and Z to fall through a trash chute to the outside world. Escaping the dangers of a magnifying glass and giant water drop, the pair make their way toward "the monolith" (a water fountain), where "Insectopia" is rumored to be just beyond.

A wide-eyed Z and Bala discover

Back at the colony, rumors of Z's defiance and independence inspire the workers to revolt, but the General convinces them to keep digging his beloved tunnel. Meanwhile, Z and Bala soon find a picnic spread and believe this to be Insectopia. They meet two snooty upper-crust wasps, Chip and Buffy (Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin), who help them with a "force field" (plastic wrap) surrounding a sandwich. The ants then get trapped on some bubble gum stuck to a boy's sneaker and are tossed into a garbage heap -- this the real "Insectopia," a virtual Disneyland of rotting food. When one overfed stink bug complains that something tastes like crap, he's delighted to find out, "It IS crap!"

The General's chief lieutenant, Cutter (Christopher Walken) finds Bala at a campfire and kidnaps her, returning her to the colony. Z goes back to rescue her, just as the General begins the tunnel opening ceremonies. Z and Bala discover the General's true plot and warn the Queen. In short, Z saves the day and the ants survive. The camera pulls back to reveal the ants' location to be Central Park, the film ends on a shot of the real New York skyline, paralleling the film's opening shot.

General Mandible confronts Princess Bala. © DreamWorks LLC.

The Long and the Short of ItAntz fulfills all the requirements expected of a contemporary feature length animated film, thus no one will be particularly disappointed. But no one will be particularly surprised either. It's the same reaction I had to Fox's Anastasia, the film doesn't give us any more than it has to. Part of the success of Toy Story, and some of the other recent Disney cartoon features, is that with every new film they reach way beyond what we're used to -- they push the envelope. Toy Story was not only a groundbreaking computer generated feature, it had characters we could relate to and a strong story. Antz, compared to that, is just a novelty. It's fun to watch, but forgettable.

I do admire DreamWorks' adult approach to animated feature filmmaking. The first part of Antz plays more like a Woody Allen neurosis comedy than any comparable family film. When Z complains about his insignificance, or abstains from "drinking out of an insect's anus," these bits could have been easily excerpted from Allen's Manhattan or Annie Hall. The film goes on to echo moments from Animal Farm, Patton, even Sylvester Stallone's Rambo -- though the film's climax recalls Stallone's recent box office bomb, Daylight.

For all the stunt casting involved, only Allen, Gene Hackman and, surprisingly, Stallone's personas really connect with their characters. Can we really tell, or care, if Sharon Stone is Bala or Anne Bancroft is the Queen? No character here generates much sympathy. Computer animation has gotten so good, so slick, and so realistic that the main characters almost feel as if they were performed by live actors in grotesque insect make-up. It took a while for me to get used to looking into Z's realistic eyes, his E.T.-like facial features, and his near-perfect dental work.

Much action occurs but little of it engages the audience. The film is bland, overall - no big laughs (think Robin William's Genie or Eddie Murphy's Mushu), no dramatic highs that had me cheering (think the climax of Toy Story), and no original message of inspiration (think Hoppity Goes To Town). Don't get me wrong, the film held my full attention for 83 minutes, but it's as hollow as the ants' underground colony.

I felt detached from "Antz" but was intrigued by it's artistry. Ironically, I can get the same pleasures from watching an actual ant farm.

Jerry Beck is a cartoon historian, writer and animation studio executive. He was editor of The 50 Greatest Cartoons (Turner), recently co-wrote Warner Bros. Animation Art (Levin) and is currently a freelance writer and consultant through his own company, Cartoon Research Co.