Superstar voices, grown-up wit make Antz an animated winner

Ah, the great rivalries of history. Rome versus Carthage. Williams versus Amherst. Larry Bird versus Magic Johnson. Disney versus DreamWorks.

Yes, that’s right. Ever since DreamWorks, Hollywood’s newest studio, was founded by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and former Disney chief Jeffrey Katzenberg (once second only to Michael Eisner), there has been a simmering rivalry between the two entertainment conglomerates. Trouble last flared up when DreamWorks released its killer comet movie, Deep Impact, two months before Disney’s Armageddon. Now DreamWorks has again gotten a head start as it releases its computer-animated insect movie, Antz, a month before Disney’s A Bug’s Life.

The DreamWorks folks obviously watched Toy Story a few times, and like that earlier success, Antz shows us a vastly different perspective on commonplace things, with a very clever script and good animation. The hero is an ant named Z, voiced by Woody Allen. He’s something of a misfit, unhappy with the programmed life of a worker ant. While trying to break out of his social situation, he encounters a variety of adventures and finds romance, fulfillment, and so on.

The vocal cast is made up of a very broad range of talented actors: imagine a movie in which Woody Allen falls in love with Sharon Stone, has Sylvester Stallone and Jennifer Lopez for his best friends, and must battle bad-guy ants Gene Hackman and Christopher Walken, only possible in the reduced-salary world of voice acting. Woody Allen’s ant persona is the same romantic nebbish he’s been playing his entire career, but he’s a lot purer and funnier than in some of his recent, more self-absorbed movies. As for Stone and Stallone, it’s nice to see that they can get involved with movies that aren’t awful.

The humor of Antz is certain to be enjoyed by children, but it’s a movie that adults can easily enjoy as well. The best jokes come from the basic absurdity of the situation, turning a few square yards of land into the ants’ entire universe. There’s a fair amount of raunchy humor as well; this is the first animated feature I’ve ever seen to feature the words “anus,” “Eurotrash,” and “erotic.”

Unfortunately, Antz compromises itself when it comes to its larger meanings. The basic theme repeated over and over by Z is that everyone should think for themselves instead of blindly following orders. This does result in some comedic disarray: social revolution comes breaking out. But of course, since neither an ant colony nor a modern Hollywood movie would function with truly revolutionary sentiments, before long cooperation and stability reign once again.

Still, it’s not often that you see a kids’ movie in which characters talk about owning the means of production, or that features the kind of grandly ridiculous scenes found here. For example, one of the most dramatic sequences in the movie comes when Z’s love, the ant princess, gets stuck to gum on the bottom of someone’s shoe. The Surrealists would have been proud.

Toy Story worked because it combined good-looking animation with a solid story and characters; Antz does the same. Unfortunately, the next time we probably won’t be so lucky; early publicity for next month’s A Bug’s Life makes it look like a very Disney movie, with cute sidekicks and musical numbers and the same old stuff. While Antz lacks the originality and inspiration of Toy Story, it certainly isn’t bogged down by formula.

One final quibble: the ants in this movie all use their forward two legs as arms, and their rear four legs for walking— but the two rear legs on each side walk in unison, as if they were stuck to each other. They should have realized that there’s no point in having six legs unless you’re actually going to use them all properly. But don’t let that bother you.

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