The Disney/DreamWorks rivalry pretty much starts right out of the gate with Antz. Disney had been developing an insect movie since the late 80s, and John Lasseter was in the midst of pitching A Bug’s Life just as Katzenberg was out the door. So you can see how Lasseter would be a little upset about Antz. Katzenberg apparently offered to stop production on his film completely if Disney would move the release date of A Bug’s Life, which was coming head to head with DreamWorks’ own The Prince of Egypt. Disney refused, so Antz‘s release was pushed from early 1999 to October 1998, a month before A Bug’s Life, making it seem to the general public that Disney had ripped off them. But it doesn’t much matter who stole whose idea, or if that was even the case at all. Antz and A Bug’s Life are two completely different films. Sure, they’re both about an individual in a crowd of millions trying to make something of himself and win the heart of the princess, but there are boatloads of films with that same premise. Antz is decidedly more adult than Bug’s, a darker and unusually grim film whose tone I actually really appreciate, but kind of works against it as the movie goes on.
Z-4195, or “Z” as he’s called, is a dissatisfied worker drone in a wholly conformist ant colony who longs for something more in life than his menial job digging tunnels. One night at a bar, he runs across Princess Bala, having a temporary escape from her doldrum royal life, and falls madly in love. For a chance to see her again, he convinces his tough guy soldier friend Weaver to switch places with him for a day. Unfortunately that day the soldiers are sent off to war with a neighboring termite colony, where they are all killed, except for Z. When he is exposed as a fraud, he panics and “kidnaps” Princess Bala, and they both end up accidentally expelled from the colony. Z decides to search for the legendary “Insectopia,” a free and open insect haven. Bala begrudgingly goes with him, and eventually starts to warm up to him. Meanwhile, word of Z’s individualism and rebellion spread through the ranks at the colony, and the ants start thinking for themselves. This is no good for General Mandible, who is planning to form a new, stronger colony by means of the “Mega Tunnel,” which leads directly to a lake that will wipe out the “weaker” worker ants.
We immediately open with one of DreamWorks’ soon-to-be traditions: highlighting their celebrities. The credits go twelve names deep, even including those who have little more than cameos like John Mahoney as the drunk at the bar and Paul Mazursky as the psychiatrist in the first scene, who has two lines. Anyway, the world of Antz is crafted immediately from the initial montage: a cold, emotionless, but efficiently run society of two classes: workers and soldiers, and there’s clearly strife between them. Everything the ants do is methodical, even their dancing, in perfect lined formation. Woody Allen is really playing against type as Z, a neurotic, worrywart nebbish, and I actually really enjoy his character, the one guy in a group of millions who is questioning his existence, and what he wants out of it. He’s not even sure who he is, all he knows is there must be something more. I really enjoyed the first half of the movie where he finally finds something worth living for in Princess Bala, and gets in deeper and deeper trouble when he does something about it.
Once Z and Bala are out and about in the world, the movie starts to lose me a bit, devolving into a generic princess falling for schmucky commoner story. Bala’s not really a character as she is a utility for Z’s personal growth, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but not a good thing either. I like the montage of Insectopia, which is just a disgusting trash heap, but clearly paradise for insects. There’s also a quick look of how it’s a society of no rules or law, with a bunch of lazy bugs not wanting to get another log for the fire, a stark contrast to the staunch communist ant colony. I really like the underlying themes of the film, where the legend of Z creates dissension in the ranks and Mandible has to put his own spin on it to get the mindless drones on his side. His whole plan of creating the perfect Aryan ant society is also made interesting in that the weaker ants are basically working toward their own demise in building the tunnel that will be their undoing. All of the other characters are basically generic archetypes (the macho best friend, the heartless antagonist, the antagonist’s lackey who gets a change of heart), but the performances help elevate them, especially when you’ve got the likes of Gene Hackman and Christopher Walken on your film. The standout to me is probably Danny Glover as the soldier Z briefly befriends, and takes pleasure in Z’s panicked state.
There really is a dark, drab quality to this film, both in its look and its tone; I can’t imagine what kids would get out of this. It’s a somewhat interesting look and certainly a diversion from the generally lighthearted fare of most animated movies. The style itself is a little bland though, not the most visually appealing. Plus there are a lot of scenes that feel very under-animated, takes that feel like they’re only half there. I don’t know if this is a result of the accelerated release date or not, but there’s big parts of the film that feel like they could’ve benefited from a few more weeks.
Antz is a fine film, with a few rough edges to it, some of them admirable, some of them needing some work. I appreciate it most for its more mature tone and handling of large themes, though it does fumble or skirt around some of them. There’s also a fair amount of mature language here too, even so far as Z talking about how he had “erotic fantasies” about Bala. But in the end I can’t say that I loved it. It’s not the out-of-the-box success that Pixar had with Toy Story, but it certainly isn’t a disaster either. For a studio’s maiden film, they could have done a lot worse.