A Picnic of a Movie

John Hartl

The not-so-farfetched story of Z (an ant with ideas and the voice of Woody Allen), the computer-animated Antz is a winner.

DreamWorks' first cartoon may not be quite as much fun as Disney's Toy Story, but it's in the same ballpark. If you choose to look at it from a certain angle, it's also the most enjoyable Woody Allen movie since Bullets Over Broadway.

Allen's discontented ant is first seen on a shrink's couch, where he talks about his fears of abandonment, prompted by a father who was "basically a drone" and left him as a larva. Even worse, he's worked all his life in a large colony with millions of other ants, who are branded at birth as either workers or soldiers. He feels insignificant.

The shrink is delighted that Z has reached a breakthrough: "You are insignificant!" The rest of Antz deals with Z's inability to become a team player, especially when that means being sent out on a suicide squad to battle the local termites, who are fiercer, five times bigger and shoot acid from their foreheads.

General Mandible (voice by Gene Hackman) specializes in carping about "filth" and lack of discipline, threatening to change history and start his new world order. Declaring war on the termites, he picks the most loyal supporters of the queen (Anne Bancroft) to go into a brutal battle that's the cartoon equivalent of Saving Private Ryan -- or, considering the nature of the threat, Starship Troopers. (This graphic scene undoubtedly accounts for the PG rating.)

Meanwhile, the spoiled Princess Bala (Sharon Stone) is wondering how to get out of her engagement to Mandible. "It's your place, dear," says the queen mother, reminding her of her duty to reproduce endlessly. But there are rumors of "Insectopia," a better place where "you can be your own ant."

When Z almost accidentally survives the battle ("I didn't do anything -- it was a massacre!"), he's proclaimed a war hero. His dream of wooing the princess, who once danced with him at a colony bar, seems within reach.

They run off together to find the promised land, though Bala tires of the barren wastes ahead: "This whole desert thing doesn't work for me." Worse yet, the local wasps look down on them as "crawling insects, the poor dears."

The screenplay for Antz, like the script of Toy Story, is what holds it together. Using the change in perspective to find humor and political allegory in everything from picnic baskets to shoe laces, the writers never let us forget that the story amounts to little more than a hill of beans from a non-ant point of view.

At the same time, they manage to make it quite engaging. They're aided considerably by the actors providing the voices and by the animators, who make the ants so distinctive that we quickly forget what they are. A few of them resemble a more limber version of the alien in E.T.

It almost comes as a relief that the songs are not original. Since such recent cartoons as Mulan and Quest For Camelot have produced no catchy tunes, it seems like genius to fill the soundtrack of Antz with standards: "High Hopes," "I Can See Clearly Now," "Give Peace a Chance" and especially "Guantanamera" are used to spectacular effect here.

The animators who made Toy Story will be represented next month by their second feature-length cartoon, A Bug's Life, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Antz. But if it's as good as Antz, its creators should have no fears about surviving in this suddenly competitive market.