Sunday, March 9, 2014

Film Review: Antz

"Antz"  *** (out of ****)

"Antz" (1998) was Dreamworks Studio's first computer generated animated feature film, putting it in direct competition with Pixar Studios, which at this time had released "Toy Story" (1995) and was about to release its second feature film, also revolving around ants, "A Bug's Life" (1998).

"Antz" beat "A Bug's Life" to the punch and was released first, in an attempt to steal the thunder from Pixar. The plan didn't exactly work, while "Antz" did well at the box-office and did find critical acclaim, former Chicago Tribune movie critic Gene Siskel placed "Antz" on his "top ten" list in 1998 (his final list before passing away), the movie however didn't beat "A Bug's Life" at the box-office. Although, with so many years passing, it is debatable which movie is better. Both have stood the test of time and are still with us. Both, kind of, sort of have different themes they are working with. "Antz" is a bit more "worldly". It takes more jabs at society and comments on every day working life, not just for ants but humans too.

In "Antz" we follow Z (voiced by Woody Allen). Z is the middle child of five billion. Thus he has identity problems. He also doesn't like the structure of the ant colony. You see, ants are divided into "workers" or "soldiers". This is done at birth. A group of ants determine which group to categorize all ants. The decision will shape the rest of their lives. Workers merely work. They dig and dig. They are told only when they band together are they worth something. The ant colony depends on strength in numbers. To the worker the soldiers have all the fun. The have the freedom not to work. Plus they get all the prestige of going into battle and being considered heroes.

Z doesn't want to live the life of a worker. He doesn't feel cut out for the job. He dislikes the idea that his entire life has been planned out for him. Once you are a worker, you will remain a worker. Z wants to be an individual in a world where this is not accepted. Every ant needs to understand his or her place. The ant colony relies on discipline.

And this becomes a major theme of the movie. Individualism. Learn to think for yourself. Don't do what others tell you. In the case of "Antz" it is what General Mandible (voiced by Gene Hackman) says. He wants to take over the ant colony from the Queen (voiced by Anne Bancroft) and create a new colony. A colony which will eliminate all the workers and only be comprised of soldiers. A master race. A colony of strong ants. In order to complete his plan he wants to marry the Queen's daughter, Princess Bala (voiced by Sharon Stone).

This concept of a master race. Of superior beings, only the strong survive, may make some think of Fascism and the Nazis, another group that thought of themselves as a "master race". And maybe now you can see why I say "Antz" is a "worldly" animated movie. It addresses bigger issues than if Minnie will kiss Mickey Mouse. It discusses people learning not to trust the government, which hides its self-interest around phony concepts of 'the greater good". Working on behalf of the interest of its people. Just like the General says of the ant colony, how many times have we heard when Americans stand together we are strong?

At one point the workers begin to realize they control productivity and if they strike nothing will get done. It is actually the workers that have all the power.

But, as to not make this movie too threatening to the establishment, of course it is disguised as a silly animated film. The lead characters are ants and it does become a love story. Z falls in love with Princess Bala and she leaves the palace to mingle with the workers, who in her mind, lead a fun life. The Princess also feels her life has been determined for her and her mother has arranged her married to General Mandible without her consent. They do not love each other. But as a Princess she too must follow orders.

When the Princess goes to the workers hangout after work, a local bar where drunken ants talk of a better world called "insectopia" where food is all over and no one is around to give orders (basically it is a picnic), Princess Bala notices Z all by himself and asks him to dance. For Z it is love at first sight but this can be their only meeting since a Princess cannot socialize with a worker not to mention she is engaged.

Z doesn't not accept this and is determined to find away to see her again. His master plan is to trade places with a soldier, his friend Weaver (voiced by Sylvester Stallone).

I like some of the ideas presented in the script by Chris and Paul Weitz (who worked on American Pie (1999) together) and Todd Alcott. It has ambition. It wants to make a social point. But it loses its nerve at the end offering a contrasting message going from individualism to the importance of order and working together. I found the same problem with another Dreamworks animated film, "Bee Movie" (2007) by Jerry Seinfeld. That movie also promoted individualism but then talked about how each person has their place in the world. It is two competing messages. You can't argue both sides at once.

What I like best about "Antz" is Woody Allen. I would like to think Allen was able to write some of his own lines because the humor is very distinctly Allen's own. His wise-cracks and observation about the ant colony and his remarks which go beyond ant life and reflect the real world. At one point, when war is declared against termites, who are bigger and stronger than the ants, Z quips, why not make campaign contributions and try to influence them instead. That remark is a comment on our own political process and a classic Allen jab. Allen's dialogue makes the movie interesting for adults. The children will be laughing at one thing while the adults will be laughing at something else. In the end everyone will find something to enjoy.

"Antz" directed by Eric Darnell, who would go on to direct "Madagascar" (2005) and Tim Johnson, who would work on "Over the Hedge" (2006), is not really a classic in my opinion but it is entertaining and shows animation can comment on the real world and make social commentaries using the guise of animation to make it less threatening and have a greater mass appeal.

I'd recommend "Antz" for Woody Allen's voice over work and some of the sharp observations even though I feel it lessens its sting (sorry wrong insect) at the end.