Antz (United States, 1998)
In the Magic Kingdom, they must be getting nervous. For years, Disney has had a death grip on the animated market, but, as we enter the latter years of the 1990s, the corporation that gave us Bambi and Snow White is finding their dominance challenged. Fox's Anastasia was actually better than last year's Disney animated film, Hercules. And now, as the Mousketeers prepare the bring the computer-generated feature A Bug's Life to the screen, Dreamworks has engineered a preemptive strike by launching its own computer-animated insect epic, Antz, two months earlier.
Antz, which had its world premiere on September 19, 1998 as the Closing Gala Selection for the 23rd annual Toronto International Film Festival, is a very good movie, no matter how you look at it. Visually, it's more impressive than Disney's Toy Story, the pioneer in this burgeoning genre. On a script level, it was developed as much with a mature audience in mind as with the usual pre-pubescent crowd. A significant helping of Antz's humor will go over the heads of the average under-12 viewer. Image-conscious adults should not feel embarrassed about sitting through this "kids' movie." The big-name vocal cast is expertly-selected. Where else can you find Woody Allen, Sylvester Stallone, Anne Bancroft, Christopher Walken, Sharon Stone, and Gene Hackman in the same film?
Antz follows the adventures of Z-4195 (Z for short), a neurotic worker ant whose voice is appropriately provided by Woody Allen. Z is in therapy because he's an individual in a colony where conformity is not only desirable, but mandatory. He's having trouble coming to grips with his insignificance and inadequacy. One night, while at a bar, he dances with Princess Bala (Sharon Stone), who's out incognito for a night of adventure. Z is immediately lovestruck and begins to plan a way to arrange another meeting with the princess. His scheme involves impersonating his friend, Weaver (Sylvester Stallone), a soldier ant. Things go wrong, however, when the evil General Mandible (Gene Hackman), arranges for the ant army to attack a nearby colony of termites, and Z finds himself in the midst of a battle. Surrounded by fierce fighters that look death in the face and laugh at it, this timid worker, whose preference is to "make belittling comments and snicker behind death's back," does the only thing he can: he hides.
Adults and children alike will be awestruck by Antz's impressive production design. This animated effort has texture and depth. Great care is taken to make the inside of the colony a place of majestic spectacle and bustling activity. You can see this movie several times and still notice new things. The characters are wonderfully rendered, with a complete gallery of facial expressions. Antz takes the visual strengths of Toy Story and improves upon them.
Story-wise, there's nothing here that is likely to confuse younger viewers. The basic plot is a cross between an adventure and a "Taming of the Shrew" romantic comedy. Or, as Z puts it, Antz is "your basic boy meets girl, boy likes girl, boy changes underlying social structure" tale. The dialogue is consistently smart, and has not been diluted to enable underage audience members to comprehend every line. Most children aren't going to understand Z's comment that a better alternative to war with the termites might be to "try influencing their political process with campaign contributions," but almost every adult in the theater will get a hearty laugh out of such an observation. A significant portion of Antz's comedy is like this.
The characters, despite their only vaguely humanoid appearance, are instantly likable. Allen plays Z like an insect version of his well-established screen persona. Stone's Bala is strong-willed and appealing, with a hard side the emerges from time-to-time. Hackman is deliciously malevolent as a megalomaniacal general. And Sylvester Stallone is solid as Z's burly, dim-but-loyal friend. Other voices include Christopher Walken as the general's second-in-command, Anne Bancroft as the ant queen, Dan Aykroyd as a snobbish yellowjacket, and Jennifer Lopez as Weaver's love interest.
It's too early to compare Antz to A Bug's Life, but, for anyone who appreciates animated films (especially those of the computer-generated variety), the late months of 1998 promise a bumper crop. As the first production out of the gate, Antz gets things off to a positive start. Successful as an adventure, a surprisingly sophisticated comedy, a light romance, and a visual treat, there are few things that Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson's feature debut does not do. If Disney is worried, perhaps they have a reason to be. The bar has just been raised, but not by them.
Antz (United States, 1998)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Screenplay: Todd Alcott, Chris & Paul Weitz
Music: John Powell, Harry Gregson-Williams