Kings of the Anthill

By Peter Brunette

Antz will probably not enter the pantheon of legendary animation classics such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or The Lion King, but it's an excellent piece of work nonetheless. And -- at the risk of appearing to condemn the film -- let me also say that it's superb family entertainment as well. Featuring a Woody Allen-voiced character named "Z" as a disgruntled worker ant tired of the regimentation that reigns in his colony, the film is deliberately aimed at the widest possible demographic, eschewing the overly visceral and terrifying in order to appeal to small children, yet also delivering the full-Woody, neurosis-as-laughathon treatment in order to keep Mom and Dad interested too. (Antz even has the chutzpah -- and wit -- to open with Z on an ant-psychoanalyst's couch.) Other bright lights that populate the film are Gene Hackman as a crazed, cleanliness-obsessed general bent on domination of the colony, Christopher Walken as his aide-de-camp, Sharon Stone as the princess (and Z's love interest), Sylvester Stallone as the muscled yet tender soldier ant, and Anne Bancroft as the aging queen.

The DreamWorks-produced computer-generated feature animation represents a huge advance over Toy Story, produced by hated cartoon rival Disney (and DreamWorks executive Jeffrey Katzenberg in an earlier incarnation), which was the first of the breed. Directors Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson told me in an interview at last month's Toronto film festival that completely new software programs had to be written to capture the organic aspects of the ants' underground world (water, crumbling dirt), something that the computer has never been very good at, as well as to render the much more lifelike facial features of Antz's characters and its convincing crowd scenes. In fact, the technical side of the film is stunning and will leave viewers in awe of the state-of-the-art animation prowess it demonstrates. And on a sheer design level, it's always visually imaginative and, at times, even lovely to behold.

But the best thing about the film is that the technological and the visual remain fully in the service of the thematic and the emotional -- in short, the human. The themes of the heroic quest, and the individual vs. the group, are rendered in a larger-than-life fashion, as they are of course supposed to be in a cartoon. The film's narrative pull is strong and its dramatized scenes and situations are consistently inventive. The effect of the all-star voices (which were recorded separately) is salutary as well, in an unexpected way: because we don't actually see them, the expressive quality of their voices and body language makes them more mythic and thus more star-like somehow, and we aren't distracted by thoughts of how much they're being overpaid or how obnoxious they can sometimes be in real life. When Allen, Stone, and Stallone are reduced to their essences they become infinitely more endearing and magical.

Weirdly, a lot of critics at Toronto seemed openly bent on disliking this movie -- a nostalgic soft spot for Disney's pre-eminence in the field? A distaste for Katzenberg's prima donna kill-or-be-killed ego? -- yet came away charmed instead. You will too.