When Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released
in 1937, the world's cinematic community was stunned that a vision so
thornily complex and beautifully primal could emerge from the painstaking
application of paint to celluloid. The history of feature animation has
never seen such a moment, before or since, though there have been flurries.
Disney has a handful of films that measure up to its debut, and the
occasional full-length, fully realized vision like James and the Giant
Peach, Toy Story, or Akira sneaks in through the mainstream or
Mostly though, the geniuses of animation have worked in shorter formats:
Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Nick Park, the Hubleys, Bill Plympton, Paul
Dini--the best work of these pioneers has clocked in under 30 minutes.
Using ink, clay, or moving scribble, the master animators have created
entire worlds with a wit and sublimity that isn't beholden to any genre.
Meanwhile, either because of expense or unfair prejudice, the
feature-length animated films that are turned out year after year are
cautious, market-tested diversions. They're designed to captivate children
with simplistic stories and treacly pop songs, while keeping adults'
attention with meaningless pop-culture references.
Antz--the first animated feature released by the fledgling
DreamWorks studio--is one of a coming wave of animated pictures attempting
to break the mold. The film tells the story of Z, a disaffected worker ant
in a colony that prizes discipline, strength, and sacrifice. In order to
get closer to the lovely Princess Bala, Z switches places with his soldier
buddy, Weaver. Unfortunately, the day the nervous Z becomes a soldier is
the day General Mandible orders a suicide attack on a termite-infested tree
stump. Through sheer cowardice, Z survives the assault and becomes the
war-hero idol of his fellow workers, who see him as a symbol of
self-actualization and upward mobility. To the outrage of Mandible and his
right-hand ant Colonel Cutter, Z's message to his colleagues encourages
them to break up the caste system and think for themselves.
Woody Allen provides the voice of Z, and it's a weird thrill to hear
Allen's kvetching schtick without having to look at his increasingly saggy,
pathetic face. Allen's own films are arguably as good as ever, but his
insistence on playing randy characters is disconcerting, especially when he
looks one hard shove away from breaking a hip. As a young ant, though,
Woody Allen is a delight, and Z's distinctly Allenesque dialogue is
The rest of the voice talent is not as successful, though not for lack
of trying. Sylvester Stallone as Weaver and Christopher Walken as Cutter
are lively enough, but Gene Hackman's Mandible and Sharon Stone's Bala are
blanks. To be fair, the dialogue of all four is merely functional,
particularly when compared to Allen's high-wire monologues about
At any rate, the most impressive thing about Antz isn't the
dialogue, characterization, or plot; it's the look of the film. Antz
is computer-animated, but unlike the bright, shiny Toy Story,
Antz looks more like the stop-motion A Nightmare Before
Christmas, crossed with the animatronic effects of Jim Henson's
Creature Shop. The colony is an elaborate series of tunnels, and the ants
that inhabit those tunnels have otherworldly faces, with what looks to be
upside-down human mouths. In big crowd scenes, Antz takes on the
shadowy 3-D look of a diorama, or an old View Master reel.
The combination of Antz's unique art direction and its low-key
tone leads to some wonderful moments. I won't soon forget the wrecking ball
made out of ants, or the horrific aftermath of the termite battle, in which
a decapitated ant tells Z, "I can't feel my legs...help me up." Nor can I
easily dismiss the thrilling scene where Z catches a ride on an enormous
shoelace, nor his time in "insectopia"--a human trash heap that's a
playground for laid-back bugs, who sit around a burning match and speculate
idly about whether there's something greater "out there."
The catch is that Antz's highlights, like Allen's funny lines,
are so sharp that the rest of the movie seems bland by comparison. Not to
belabor the Toy Story comparison, but every frame of Pixar's
landmark was filled with stunning detail and observant in-jokes. By
contrast, Antz's rich tableaux seem merely busy, overstuffed without
Which is not to say that Antz is not entertaining and
impressive--it is both. But it's not what it could've been, given its star
power and design quality, as well as the metaphoric overtones of the story.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks' head of animation (who formerly held the
same title at Disney), reportedly told the film's creative team to take
Antz as far into adult territory as it wanted, while maintaining a
Oddly, though, DreamWorks then rushed the film into release in order to
beat Pixar's upcoming A Bug's Life to the box office; and one can't
help but wonder if the abrupt release date didn't prevent the filmmakers
from giving the film the layers of substance it could've used. Certainly
the only lingering elements of "adultness" are a story that's too
philosophical for young kids and a liberal use of the word "ass."
When all is said and done, there's nothing in Antz that we
haven't seen done before and done better in countless animated shorts or
Simpsons episodes. While not a Disney clone like so many rival
cartoon features from other studios, Antz still lacks the unified,
inspired vision of one guiding imagination. What's missing is the thrill of
unfettered fantasy, of an obsessive, feverish mind or minds sweating the
minutiae and occasionally collapsing in hilarity at the absurdity of the
world they've created. It's time to stop excusing animated features that
are safely "edgy," while so many talented artists can't get a forum that's
any longer than a sitcom. Antz may not be for kids, but it's hardly
satisfying for adults, either. Its tiny vision is certainly something to
see, but mostly it illustrates how far we have to go.