Movie Review: AntzBy Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Directed by Eric Darnell and Lawrence Guterman
Written by Todd Alcott, Chris Weitz, Paul Weitz
With the voices of Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Sylvester Stallone, Christopher Walken, Danny Glover, Dan Aykroyd
Animation is not just for kids anymore. After Disney started proving how profitable the animated musical adventure formula could be and ended by running said formula into the ground, many other studios jumped on the bandwagon. Their genre entries can be easily rated based on how well the creators of these films understand and utilize the formula. For an example of it done well, see Anastasia; for the example of it not done well, see - or, rather, don't - Quest for Camelot. Now comes the next step - trying to break out of the convention. To start the coming stampede of animated films (which include Rugrats, A Bug's Life, and The Prince of Egypt) is the first animated picture from DreamWorks, Antz. It tweaks the formula, and by doing so it makes a somewhat uninspired plot feel fresh and new.
The story (of which there's a lot) centers on a meek neurotic ant, called Z (voiced by Woody Allen), who is highly unsatisfied with his humble position in society, the routine work, and the general feeling which comes from being a middle child in a family of five million. Princess Bala (Sharon Stone) doesn't like her impending arranged marriage. General Mandible (Gene Hackman) doesn't like the fact that he's not the King of the Anthill. And Z's pal Weaver (Sylvester Stallone), who is a soldier, doesn't like the fact that he is not allowed to spend time with female workers.
The whole idea of a movie where Woody Allen is the romantic action hero who romances Sharon Stone and has Sylvester Stallone for a sidekick is inherently formula-breaking, and the makers of Antz decidedly up the ante by making it a PG-rated movie, with a good deal of jokes clearly aimed over the heads of the kids in the audience, which is a good thing as far as I'm concerned. On the other side - and this is also a good thing - it's much less violent than most recent G-rated Disney efforts, and as such, is more suitable for the kids as well. It is also well integrated - Antz doesn't feel like it was made by a bunch of bureaucrats trying to ensure it appeals to each and every audience segment.
Another welcome difference is that Antz isn't a musical. Call it a Pavlovian response, but I already start to shudder when an animated character seems on the verge of bursting into song. While there are a couple of musical scenes, they mostly use old chestnuts, and in a decidedly ironic manner. Generally, the film is content to use its score simply as background music, and here it excels since the score in question is truly excellent: playful and rhythmic and memorable.
But, formula or no formula, every movie has to have a story and a plot, and the plot of Antz feels somewhat generic, moving along on frequently clumsy plot devices and random coincidences. It also provides lamentably few moments of pure wonder. The first shot of the anthill from the inside (cued to Z's psychiatrist telling him "You are insignificant!") is a sight to behold, with highly detailed computer animation never feeling artificial. Later in the movie there a breathtaking sequence involving a shoe, a wad of gum, and a shoelace, and it creates a real adrenaline rush. The plot of the rest of the film is serviceable, but no more.
Another major problem is the film's inconsistent subtext. For almost all of it's running time, Antz seems to champion the individual, private ingenuity, and earnest emotion, as opposed to the collective, brute force, and rusty traditions. All that is done very well, and the hidden references to Brave New World are wickedly good. But the climax, while reasonably exciting, totally drops the ball and has the ants save the day by again becoming a featureless mass.
To be fair, all this doesn't really impede the enjoyment of the movie while it unfolds. Antz has enough rich detail and visual ingenuity to hold one's attention. In addition, the voice work ranges from adequate to truly inspired, with the most memorable being Allen (naturally), Stallone (surprisingly), Hackman (he's one creepy bug), and Dan Ackroyd (as a WASP, er, I mean wasp).
So, it seems that animation doesn't have to rely on the same old conventions to be actively enjoyable. Now the ball is in Disney's court, and their similarly-themed A Bug's Life is just around the corner. We'll see who's the king of the anthill.