Grown-up Chlidhood Fun

By Elizabeth Weitzman

Woody Allen as the star of a children's film? Well, why not, when the movie itself appears at various points to have been conceived by Leni Riefenstahl, Fritz Lang, and Ayn Rand. It all sounds very grown-up, but that's just fine; this is a picture that will appeal both to the more discerning audience members and the parents who bring them.

When we first meet Z (Allen), he's kvetching to his therapist about his insignificance as one of billions of worker ants in a giant underground colony that places all the emphasis on the good of the group. One ant does not and cannot make a difference, Z is constantly reminded. But one day he finds the beautiful Princess Bala (Sharon Stone) standing beside him at a bar, inviting him to dance. The only recreational movement permitted is a united line dance to the strains of "Guantanamera," but Bala has just escaped from the castle, so she doesn't know individualism isn't allowed here. An ecstatic Z is freed for a moment, but then Bala is gone as suddenly as she came.

In an attempt to see her again, Z convinces his soldier buddy Weaver (Sylvester Stallone) to swap places when it's time for the royal review of the troops. Unfortunately, the review coincides with the announcement, by the evil General Mandible (Gene Hackman), that the soldiers will be heading into war against encroaching termites. Mandible's true purpose is to destroy the queen and colony and start over as leader, and of the troops only Z survives the surprisingly bloody battle. He returns a hero, but is soon cast out by Mandible. Having grabbed Bala before leaving, Z winds up in the real world with his princess, close to the oft-imagined "Insectopia" (picnic baskets and trash cans). Eventually Bala is found by Mandible's man Col. Cutter (Chris Walken), and returned home as prisoner. It's up to Z to prove himself a true hero, by capturing his love, overthrowing the totalitarian regime, and saving their colony.

A quite remarkable feat of technology, the film shifts nicely from the overwhelming (the overhead views of the bustling microcosm) to the sweetly old-fashioned (the outside world is drawn like a picture book). The bugs themselves are barely insects, resembling E.T. more than any ant I've seen. Each one (including Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd as a couple of amusingly blueblood wasps) looks just enough like its human counterpart to entertain grown-ups, while remaining plenty cute for the kids. The humor, too, is uncommonly adult, with political jokes flying over lower heads without alienating anyone. Even an in-his-element Allen should prove a draw for the whole family; I can't remember the last time he was this appealing on screen.

Despite the impressive animation, there are enough lags in the script to keep Antz hill-sized next to the forever-mountainous Toy Story. Still, there's more than enough here to entertain anyone looking for, as Z sums it up, "your basic boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy changes underlying social structure" fairy tale.