MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1998
"Antz" is a funny, ambitious computer-animated fable about the battle for individuality in an environment of strict social control. It's the only animated movie I can think of that revolves around an insect worker leading a social revolution. This is an undeniably unique motion picture.
If it seems odd for what is ostensibly a kid's feature to have serious underlying themes like the evil of totalitarianism, it is. However, "Antz" should not be taken as just a movie for little ones--some of its jokes are irreverent enough and at least one scene is violent enough that the MPAA gave it a PG-rating. However, the movie never lets its potentially heavy-handed thematic elements get in the way of its humor or its enjoyment; in fact, it does a near perfect job of intertwining the two, taking its message and its entertainment value and binding them into a seamless whole.
Much of the film's success can be attributed to the talented cast of actors who lent their distinctive voices to the computer-animated ants and assorted insects. It's sometimes easy to overlook the fact that there is acting going on behind the colorful celluloid of animated films. "Antz" is perhaps something of a rarity because, instead of having only one or two big-name stars like Robin Williams or Eddie Murphy voicing obvious stand-out characters, it has at least a dozen. The script, by Todd Alcott, Chris Weitz, and Paul Weitz, creates characters that are based extensively on our identification with the popular notions associated with these actors, including Woody Allen, Sylvester Stallone, Dan Aykroyd, Gene Hackman, and Christopher Walken.
The main character Z--who has Allen's immediately recognizable, neurotic voice--is a drone, a worker ant who is plain tired of conforming. He lives and works in a huge, five million-member ant colony beneath Central Park. The colony is officially headed by the Queen (Anne Bancroft) and Princess Bala (Sharon Stone), but in reality, it is run by the ruthless and ambitious General Mandible (Hackman) and his right-hand ant, Colonel Cutter (Walken).
Z yearns to break free of the oppressive regimen that is his life, and the movie uses several hilarious moments to visualize how monotonously the same life is day in and day out for the worker ants. One scene takes place in an after-work bar, where all the ants sit around drinking and chatting. Suddenly, the DJ announces that it's time to dance, and all the ants dutifully go out on the dance floor, line up in perfect rows, and begin doing the exact same mechanical dance routine. Even when having fun, the ants have to follow strict codes and procedures.
It's not hard to see why, when we first meet Z, he is on his back on a psychologist's couch, complaining that he feels insignificant. The punchline, of course, is that the psychologist ant (Paul Mazursky), happy to finally be making progress, announces, "Congratulations, you've made a breakthrough: you are insignificant!"
In the short duration of the film's less-than-90-minute running length, Z proves that he is not insignificant by joining the army and accidentally winding up in a battle against an army of termites, which leads to his being mislabeled a war hero; kidnapping Princess Bala, which leads to his being mislabeled a radical social revolutionary; escaping from the colony and traversing through the "desert," crossing a "lake," and eventually finding his way to the mythical "Insectopia," which is actually just an overflowing trashcan populated by lazy insects who talk like stoned California surfers. When Bala, who becomes Z's romantic interest, is snatched back by Cutter and returned to the colony, Z then has to return and live up to the labels he has been given.
In many ways, "Antz" is that rare gem, a believable character study. All of Woody Allen's films of the last two decades have been character pieces, so it's not surprising that when he agreed to voice an animated character, it is one that greatly reflects his own persona. In fact, the character of Z is so Woody Allen-ish that it's hard to imagine Allen didn't have a hand in writing or at least improvising some of his lines, many of which are political and sexual jokes.
Of course, Allen's character wouldn't work if it didn't fit into the larger story. The thematic elements in "Antz" are very much in line with the classic Hollywood films that were always juggling the disparaging notions of the loner individual and the necessity for viable community of which that loner can never be a part. "Antz" makes a move toward answering that dilemma, by positing the notion that there is benefit in being a unique individual within a larger community that respects individuality. It embraces freedom from unwarranted social control while simultaneously acknowledging that real success only comes when people (or, in this case, ants) work together.
On a technical level, "Antz" is simply marvelous. After two years in production, this is the first computer-animated picture from DreamWorks SKG, and it is the first feature-length work produced by the 18-year-old San Francisco-based PDI, a computer animation firm that has done limited effects work on movies like "Batman & Robin" (1997), "The Arrival" (1997), and a special 1995 Halloween episode of "The Simpsons." Their work on "Antz" shows that they are a strong rival to Pixar, Apple-founder Steve Jobs' firm that created "Toy Story" (1995) and the soon-to-open "A Bug's Life."
First-time directors Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson do a great job of capturing the three-dimensional animated world of the ants, which is so complex and eye-filling that it makes one want to see the movie twice just to absorb all the little details. This is especially true in the scenes that take place inside the ant colony, which resembles a earthy cross between the cityscape in "Blade Runner" (1982) and the inside of the mother ship in "Independence Day" (1996). However, one of the most visually-arresting scenes is the frantic, intense battle when the ants invade the lair of giant termites, which feels like something that belongs in a sci-fi horror film with all the oozing saliva and dripping fangs.
The ants themselves take a little getting used to because PDI basically pasted the actors' features (mostly their mouths) and facial tics onto bizarre, squarish ant heads that look like E.T. in close-up. To be honest, they're a little creepy-looking at first, but once you recognize Woody Allen's smirk, Danny Glover's broad smile, and Sylvester Stallone's thick jowls, it all starts to come together. The audience response to these characters is heavily influenced by the pleasurable realization that these are readily identifiable actors--rarely if ever is there a movie that incorprates so much diverse talent at once.
©1998 James Kendrick