If it weren't for Woody Allen, who supplies the voice for the unwilling but funny hero of Antz, DreamWorks' first computer- animated feature would be little more than a mildly entertaining insect-centered knock-off of umpteen Disney flicks, most notably that studio's 1992 hit, Aladdin.
See if this sounds familiar:
The protagonist of Antz, Z (Allen), is a poor but honest worker who's convinced he's meant for something greater in life. One evening, the princess (voiced by Sharon Stone) decides she wants to learn how the commoners live, and visits a bar, where she meets Z, who falls in love with her. To see her again, he trades places with his best friend, a soldier (Sylvester Stallone), just before a royal review of the troops. Z doesn't know, however, that the power-mad general who commands the troop (Gene Hackman) is sending it into battle against acid-spewing termites, as part of his Hitleresque plot to destroy the queen and start a new, purified colony of Master Ants.
Yes, hardly fresh and the formula was hardly fresh before Disney began trotting out annual variations, what with The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Hercules, etc. etc. etc.
What elevates the film, however, is Allen, whose character is a lot like some of those he portrayed in his films in the 1970s, Bananas, Sleeper, or Love and Death a whiny schmo who finds himself forced into doing something extraordinary.
The dialogue seems vintage Allen. For example, as he marches with the army into battle, he whines, "Instead of going to war, why don't we just try to influence their political process with campaign contributions?" Later, the general says to him, "You're like me. We laugh in the face of death." Z replies, "Actually, I prefer to make snide remarks and smirk behind death's back."
Beyond the dialogue, there are touches that conjure, effectively, other Allen films. The opening, for example, has Allen delivering a voice-over narration about his life and his unhappiness, much as Annie Hall or opens (making this, I guess, Ant-hattan). Later on, when he dances with the princess, Z's moves seem straight out of Allen's in the discotheque scene of Play it Again, Sam.
Even beyond the allusions to Allen's work, the filmmakers seemed intent on drawing the audience into a game of "Name that Film," as it alludes to such movies as ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Starship Troopers, and even this summer's Saving Private Ryan the aftermath of the ants-termite battle seems drawn from Ryan's graphic Normandy beach sequence.
It is in fact, the echoes of this last film that leads me to wonder, for whom did DreamWorks intend Antz? On the one hand, it's a cartoon (and the 3-D computer animation is stunning, more interesting than that of 1995's Toy Story), and so, clearly, the filmmakers sought to appeal to children. As well, the story and its simple moral is one that children will get be brave, be true to yourself and do good things, the gospel according to Disney, only this time, the Steven Spielberg translation.
On the other hand, a good deal of its humor, which demands an audience get in-jokes and film allusions, is over the head of most younger children. There is also the fact of the violence, notably in the battle scene and its aftermath. Although the characters are animated, it's not cartoon violence.
With this caveat in mind, however, Antz is a pretty fair film-despite its formula story, it's funnier and smarter than a lot of what Hollywood unleashes on the market as "family-fare." If you take your kids, however, just be ready for the nightmares.
by Joe Schuster
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