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That's Ant-ertainment

By Michael O'Sullivan
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 and dead bugs
I don't much care for bugs, but the cartoon insects in "Antz" are a heck of a lot more entertaining than the ones that live under my kitchen sink.

The delightful animated feature – a joint production of DreamWorks Pictures and special-effects house PDI – boasts not only a cast of millions, but an adorably bug-eyed antihero (get it?) named Z-4195. If the whiny voice and anxious kvetching of this six-legged neurotic sound familiar, they come courtesy of that walking bundle of tics, Woody Allen.

As Z, Allen reprises his familiar shtick to great effect as he whines to his shrink (Paul Mazursky) in the film's opening sequence about the injustices of life on the ant farm. An anonymous worker in the tunnel construction industry, Z is unsatisfied because he doesn't like dirt and he doesn't quite get the whole concept of the "superorganism thing" – the philosophy that the colony is all that matters.

Contributing to his psychosocial complex is the fact that his drone father left him when he was just an itty-bitty larva – the middle child in a family of 5 million – and furthermore, he's never been able to lift more than 10 times his own weight.

"Congratulations," says the therapist, as the insignificant Z acknowledges his feelings of utter worthlessness. "You're making real progress."

Far be it from the spunky schlemiel to assimilate that easily into the teeming multitudes, however. When he falls in love, it's not just with a fellow proletarian, but with the lovely Princess Bala (Sharon Stone), a slumming aristocrat he meets one evening when she steps out for an aphid beer in the workers' bar. In a hilarious sequence, as row upon row of his robotic colleagues line-dance to a Muzak version of "Guantanamera," the free-wheeling Z and Bala shock the bug-oisie by dancing to a different drummer. If that iconoclastic behavior doesn't get him in enough trouble with the authorities, the love-struck Z is soon conniving to trade places with his pal Weaver (Sylvester Stallone), a soldier ant who gives up his helmet so Z can infiltrate the military, hoping to catch a glimpse of his beloved as the troops march past the royal reviewing stand.

Too bad that General Mandible (Gene Hackman), a deranged officer who makes George S. Patton look like a milquetoast, has just declared war on the neighboring termites. The preemptive strike is all part of his megalomaniacal plan to take over the world – or at least the local ant hill.

Can Z survive the suicidal attack on an enemy five times the size of the average ant – one whose secret weapon is the ability to squirt acid from its forehead? Will he win the love of the fair maiden while leading the mass of downtrodden workers in a mini-Marxist revolution? And is there really such a place as Insectopia, the fabled paradise of sour milk and rancid honey?

Sorry, stinging fire ants couldn't make me reveal the outcome of this witty and, yes, surprisingly suspenseful adventure. The story, cleverly written by Todd Alcott and brothers Chris and Paul Weitz, is an old-fashioned yarn about the triumph of individuality over conformity that taps into the universal desire to root for the underdog. As directed by Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson, however, this fantasia actually accomplishes what many live-action narratives fail to do: It makes you care about its speck-sized characters.

That's all the more unusual given the fact that these animated "Antz" crawled out of a computer, an all-too-often soulless tool known more for the technical high-wire acts it is capable of than it is for its emotional depth.

As the 1995 "Toy Story" proved, when you start with a good, solid narrative, coupled with the nuanced vocal interpretations of a well-chosen cast, it matters little whether your protagonists are pixels, pen and ink, or real people.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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