Thank God for "Toy Story." In one fell swoop, "Toy Story" managed to not only raise the bar on animation -- giving us glorious 3-D -- but it did away with all the schlocky Disney cartoon conventions. Here, finally, was a film that skipped the ridiculous choral numbers, the buxom babes just dying to get rescued by intrepid heroes, the butchered history and the nice-nice plots with oodles of dancing animals and happily-ever-afters. A million adults gladly watched "Toy Story" over and over with their kids.
Three years later, Disney is still churning out the melodramatic musicals, but a wave of 3-D animated films are starting to hit the big screen in hopes of becoming the next "Toy Story." This summer witnessed Dreamworks' "Small Soldiers," which had a similar plot (toys come to life!) but only lukewarm reviews. A lot of people are betting on "A Bug's Life," Pixar's first post-"Toy Story" feature, which won't be released until Thanksgiving. But in the meantime, we've got "Antz." Produced by Dreamworks, "Antz" is still too mired in Hollywood hokeyness to be heir to the 3-D title, but it's still a cheery little film. The kids will like it. You'll laugh. It'll be enough to tide you over until "Toy Story 2" comes out next year.
"Antz" is the story of Z (voiced by Woody Allen), a disgruntled worker ant who gripes about his feelings of insignificance while shoveling clods of dirt. He lives in an enormous colony that looks like a cross between Auschwitz and "Metropolis," where marching minions of ants toil for the good of the colony under signs that blaze "Freetime is for training," "Let's work" and "We, not You." Even fun is structured: When a loudspeaker in the local watering hole announces it's time to dance, the ants shuffle into formation and plod along.
Our whiny hero Z is, however, a nonconformist and finds himself at the crux of an extraordinary series of events after meeting Princess Bala (Sharon Stone) when she sneaks out of the palace to slum it on the town. Z masquerades as a soldier ant to see her again and becomes an accidental war hero; he then abducts Princess Bala and heads to the promised land of Insectopia, topping it all off by saving his colony (of course) from the psychotic soldier ant Gen. Mandible (Gene Hackman), Princess Bala's intended.
The world of the colony is eerily rendered, and the creatively interpreted ants are nicely lifelike, although Z himself bears a striking resemblance to E.T. The voices are also done well -- Sylvester Stallone is especially funny as Z's muscle-bound friend Weaver; Dan Ackroyd is great as an upper-crust hornet; and Sharon Stone does a serviceable though unexceptional job as spoiled Princess Bala.
In fact, in a cast of huggable bugs, Z is the only character that grates: Allen plays the voice of Z much like he plays any of his characters, by simply being himself. You may have a hard time imagining an ant as a neurotic and bitter middle-aged Jewish man; I certainly did. If you close your eyes you might think you were watching "Deconstructing Harry" -- the movie even opens with Z on his therapist's couch, complaining about his neglected childhood and feelings of inadequacy.
All of the 3-D films released so far have revolved around small creatures in a big, bad world of humans -- not surprisingly, since it's easier to render sweet cheery little things than hairy humanoids. Besides, there are endless laughs to be had from a depiction of the human world from a bug's eye view. "Antz "is no exception, and in fact the most engaging point in the film is when Z and Bala head out in search of Insectopia, navigating the hazards of fly swatters, water droplets and gum-caked shoes.
Pixar's "A Bug's Life," the other fall flick involving animated ants, will also be a 3-D animation revolving around a nonconformist ant who saves his colony from certain devastation. The similarity between the two films has started a small war within Hollywood circles, and Pixar chief Steve Jobs and his Disney backers have accused Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg of filching their idea when he left Disney in 1994. Katzenberg denies this but pushed the release date of "Antz" up five months so that his film would hit theaters first.
Katzenberg may or may not have stolen his idea from Pixar, but it's obvious in the film that he spent significant time at Disney. The plot of "Antz" is pure Disney pastiche: There's the plebeian male who wins the beautiful princess by saving her from certain devastation (like "Aladdin"); there's the nonconformist who doesn't listen to convention and saves the world (like "Mulan"); and there's the princess who, bored of castle life, disguises herself to go slumming (like "Aladdin" and "The Little Mermaid").
Fortunately, the scriptwriters were witty enough to mine the conformity vs. individualism plot line for all its satirical potential. Z's accidental heroism, for example, sparks a communist revolution within the colony -- imagine worker ants shouting, "It's the workers who own the means of production!" and a throng of bugs swaying in time to "Give Peace a Chance." There are enough of these kinds of jabs at sociopolitical hubris to save the otherwise predictable plot. Given that the life of an ant is rather mundane, "Antz" does well in spite of the limitations of its subject; it will be interesting to see whether "A Bug's Life" will do better. And if nothing else, at least the ants don't sing.