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Close Encounters of the 'Antz' Kind

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 1998

  Movie Critic

Woody Allen voices the character of Z-4195 in "Antz." (DreamWorks SKG)

Eric Darnell; Lawrence Guterman
Woody Allen;
Sharon Stone;
Danny Glover;
Sylvester Stallone;
Jennifer Lopez;
Gene Hackman;
Anne Bancroft;
Christopher Walken;
Dan Aykroyd
Running Time:
1 hour, 23 minutes
Mild vulgarity
While "Babe" made you want to give up bacon, "Antz" will make you reach for the Raid.

The first of two computer ant-imated features for fall, this little flick from DreamWorks is beating Disney's "A Bug's Life" to the screen by several weeks.

Although the movies share similar story lines – idiosyncratic ant saves the hill from enemy hordes – Disney's bugs look funnier, funkier and more traditionally cartoonish than the more authentically drawn arthropods of "Antz."

The animation might not have been such a problem, however, if these creepy crawlies had more appealing character traits. Cuddly they aren't. These critters look more like those big-eyed, Gumby-like gray aliens.

On the other hand, the anthill itself is a spectacularly animated series of caverns, a subterranean realm humming with industry. The scene, like some aspects of the story, recalls "Metropolis," a social allegory about a tyrannical ruling class and the workers who toil in the totalitarian underground.

In "Antz," the Queen (regally voiced by Anne Bancroft), Princess Bala (voiced by Sharon Stone) and their courtiers lounge about in the upper realms, while the drones, workers and soldiers labor in the tunnels deep below.

It is the Ant Way, and most accept the system, which has served the species so well lo these thousands of years. But not Z (voiced by Woody Allen), the neurotic, nattering, narcissistic exception.

Allen, as an ant in analysis, is frankly more annoying than amusing. Without those owlish eyes so bewildered behind those horn rims, that scrawny body and the rest of the preposterous package, Allen is just another whiner.

But then he hasn't got much to work with in this self-serving, product-plugging wisp of a script. It's surely not aimed at children, given its grotesque battle scenes, which might have been modeled on those between the Nazi youth and outer space bugs in "Starship Troopers."

And an ant blathering on his wee analyst's couch seems equally unlikely to appeal to youngsters who tend to crack up at the gas-passing slapstick of the comic duo in "The Lion King." Hakuna matata.

Sorry, "Antz" has no show-stopping song and dance numbers, no catchy melodies and no love songs either. The score, made up of old standards, does, however, enhance one of the movie's wittier episodes.

It takes place in a blue-collar bar, where ants dance in happy conformity to the strains of "Guantanamera," while that anarchist Z and his partner (Princess Bala in disguise) improvise. Can a workers' uprising be far behind? For whatever ill-conceived reasons, the material is obviously tilted toward grown-ups. But it's hard to believe that adults will be drawn to a cartoon about an ant no matter how remarkable his accomplishments.

Stone brings all the enthusiasm of a guest at a roach motel to the role of Bala, the sort of gal who'd really rather be shopping for a tiara than changing the world. Further, she and Allen aren't quite on the same page. Perhaps Allen's Z would be more interested in a larva than a sophisticated lady bug such as she.

Sylvester Stallone's beefy soldier ant and Jennifer Lopez's gum-popping worker are the most amiable of this all-star ensemble, which also includes Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd as WASPy wasps (har-de-har-har), Danny Glover as an infantryman who takes Z under his wing, and John Mahoney as a drunk who claims to have visited the mythical land of Insectopia.

The real live bugs captured in the French film "Microcosmos" were infinitely more fascinating than these thin constructs. Even the dung beetle earned our respect as he worried his precious pooh ball up and over a twig that for it was a veritable Sequoia log.

Actually, that industrious little fellow is far more heroic than Z, who is not only a slacker at work, but also a coward who takes credit for undeserved bravery. Things like this violate the first commandments of fairy-tale movies: The protagonist must learn a moral lesson in the end.

Perhaps we'll get back on track with "A Bug's Life," since Disney is well aware of the genre's demands and remains unsurpassed in the animated arena. The studio's toonsmiths know that kids want to be scared, but that henchmen must be boobs right out of "101 Dalmatians" and criminal masterminds as ludicrously improbable as Cruella de Vil.

Beyond that, the material better be magical. "Antz" isn't.

Eric Darnell, noted for his commercials, and Tim Johnson, who directed the 1995 Halloween special of "The Simpsons," are short on abracadabra. Their sluggish pacing hardly reflects the hustle and bustle of an anthill.

Of course, it's important to slow down when it comes time to plug products, which include a brand of sneaker and three types of soda. Notorious for selling everything but his soul, Spielberg is also known for making sly references to previous works in his newer films. "Antz" contains pointed ones to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," to "E.T." and, if I'm not mistaken, and I hope I am, to "Saving Private Ryan." As if he needed to pat himself on the back.

With the notable exception of Kafka's "Metamorphosis," insects usually don't play leading roles, and for a good reason. They're pests. Will "A Bug's Life" be any different? Hmmm. Maybe it is a little too early to unplug ye olde bug zapper.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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