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Nashville Scene Ant Misbehavin'

An all-star cast goes buggy in "Antz," but not buggy enough

By Noel Murray

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  When Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937, the world's cinematic community was stunned that a vision so thornily complex and beautifully primal could emerge from the painstaking application of paint to celluloid. The history of feature animation has never seen such a moment, before or since, though there have been flurries. Disney has a handful of films that measure up to its debut, and the occasional full-length, fully realized vision like James and the Giant Peach, Toy Story, or Akira sneaks in through the mainstream or from overseas.

Mostly though, the geniuses of animation have worked in shorter formats: Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Nick Park, the Hubleys, Bill Plympton, Paul Dini--the best work of these pioneers has clocked in under 30 minutes. Using ink, clay, or moving scribble, the master animators have created entire worlds with a wit and sublimity that isn't beholden to any genre. Meanwhile, either because of expense or unfair prejudice, the feature-length animated films that are turned out year after year are cautious, market-tested diversions. They're designed to captivate children with simplistic stories and treacly pop songs, while keeping adults' attention with meaningless pop-culture references.

Antz--the first animated feature released by the fledgling DreamWorks studio--is one of a coming wave of animated pictures attempting to break the mold. The film tells the story of Z, a disaffected worker ant in a colony that prizes discipline, strength, and sacrifice. In order to get closer to the lovely Princess Bala, Z switches places with his soldier buddy, Weaver. Unfortunately, the day the nervous Z becomes a soldier is the day General Mandible orders a suicide attack on a termite-infested tree stump. Through sheer cowardice, Z survives the assault and becomes the war-hero idol of his fellow workers, who see him as a symbol of self-actualization and upward mobility. To the outrage of Mandible and his right-hand ant Colonel Cutter, Z's message to his colleagues encourages them to break up the caste system and think for themselves.

Woody Allen provides the voice of Z, and it's a weird thrill to hear Allen's kvetching schtick without having to look at his increasingly saggy, pathetic face. Allen's own films are arguably as good as ever, but his insistence on playing randy characters is disconcerting, especially when he looks one hard shove away from breaking a hip. As a young ant, though, Woody Allen is a delight, and Z's distinctly Allenesque dialogue is genuinely funny.

The rest of the voice talent is not as successful, though not for lack of trying. Sylvester Stallone as Weaver and Christopher Walken as Cutter are lively enough, but Gene Hackman's Mandible and Sharon Stone's Bala are blanks. To be fair, the dialogue of all four is merely functional, particularly when compared to Allen's high-wire monologues about individuality.

At any rate, the most impressive thing about Antz isn't the dialogue, characterization, or plot; it's the look of the film. Antz is computer-animated, but unlike the bright, shiny Toy Story, Antz looks more like the stop-motion A Nightmare Before Christmas, crossed with the animatronic effects of Jim Henson's Creature Shop. The colony is an elaborate series of tunnels, and the ants that inhabit those tunnels have otherworldly faces, with what looks to be upside-down human mouths. In big crowd scenes, Antz takes on the shadowy 3-D look of a diorama, or an old View Master reel.

The combination of Antz's unique art direction and its low-key tone leads to some wonderful moments. I won't soon forget the wrecking ball made out of ants, or the horrific aftermath of the termite battle, in which a decapitated ant tells Z, "I can't feel my legs...help me up." Nor can I easily dismiss the thrilling scene where Z catches a ride on an enormous shoelace, nor his time in "insectopia"--a human trash heap that's a playground for laid-back bugs, who sit around a burning match and speculate idly about whether there's something greater "out there."

The catch is that Antz's highlights, like Allen's funny lines, are so sharp that the rest of the movie seems bland by comparison. Not to belabor the Toy Story comparison, but every frame of Pixar's landmark was filled with stunning detail and observant in-jokes. By contrast, Antz's rich tableaux seem merely busy, overstuffed without being edifying.

Which is not to say that Antz is not entertaining and impressive--it is both. But it's not what it could've been, given its star power and design quality, as well as the metaphoric overtones of the story. Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks' head of animation (who formerly held the same title at Disney), reportedly told the film's creative team to take Antz as far into adult territory as it wanted, while maintaining a PG rating.

Oddly, though, DreamWorks then rushed the film into release in order to beat Pixar's upcoming A Bug's Life to the box office; and one can't help but wonder if the abrupt release date didn't prevent the filmmakers from giving the film the layers of substance it could've used. Certainly the only lingering elements of "adultness" are a story that's too philosophical for young kids and a liberal use of the word "ass."

When all is said and done, there's nothing in Antz that we haven't seen done before and done better in countless animated shorts or Simpsons episodes. While not a Disney clone like so many rival cartoon features from other studios, Antz still lacks the unified, inspired vision of one guiding imagination. What's missing is the thrill of unfettered fantasy, of an obsessive, feverish mind or minds sweating the minutiae and occasionally collapsing in hilarity at the absurdity of the world they've created. It's time to stop excusing animated features that are safely "edgy," while so many talented artists can't get a forum that's any longer than a sitcom. Antz may not be for kids, but it's hardly satisfying for adults, either. Its tiny vision is certainly something to see, but mostly it illustrates how far we have to go.

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