"Antz," in some respects, is reminiscent of a Woody Allen film. We're talking one of his earlier, funnier, essentially optimistic efforts, not the recent bile festivals packed with grim observations, graphic language and unappealing sex scenes.
Allen, as the voice of worker-ant Z, is up to his usual tortured kvetching, this time bemoaning the futility of the communistic, totalitarian system to which he's consigned. Digging is his job, and the greater good of the colony is supposed to motivate his loyalty.
"What about my needs?" Z complains. "What about me?"
His co-worker and friend Azteca (Jennifer Lopez) is a happy fellow drone, always ready with the party line. "It's not about you," she insists to her depressed colleague. "It's about the team."
Creative teamwork, and maybe even a little old-fashioned Hollywood synchronicity, are to be credited for the computer-generated animated gem from DreamWorks and Pacific Data Images, pushed into theaters earlier than planned to beat the November arrival of the similarly themed Pixar/Disney effort "A Bug's Life." The competition pits ex-Disney cartoon guru Jeffrey Katzenberg, now a DreamWorks executive, against his old bosses.
"Antz" doesn't look, sound or feel like a rush job. Co-directors Eric Darnell, Larry Gutterman and Tim Johnson have created a striking universe of ants, a catacombed colony of teeming masses of six-legged creatures with brown, orange and purple faces, some resembling the A-list actors who provide their voices.
These beleaguered beasts of burden spend their days hacking holes into the earth, carrying dirt and clumping together to form giant wrecking balls, and their off hours drinking and line dancing at a bar featuring a band maybe inspired by the one at the "Star Wars" cantina.
There, Z meets the slumming Princess Bala (Sharon Stone), teaches her to dance against the crowd, and promptly falls in love with the glamorous royal daughter, soon to be married to the ruthless, duplicitous General Mandible (Gene Hackman). Like the screen Woody of yore, Z just can't help telling the world he's in love: He breaks out with a crooning rendition of "It's Almost Like Being in Love" and seeks advice from his pal Weaver (Sylvester Stallone), a brawny soldier with a good heart.
Our hero faces seemingly insurmountable obstacles, of course, before reuniting with his new true love. He's accidentally sent to war, survives a nasty battle with the tanklike termites, is declared a hero and travels to "insectopia" (land of the humans) with the object of his affection.
While on their journey, the future lovebirds encounter a picnic blanket loaded with food, a pair of patronizing English-accented hornets and a dangerous, mobile tennis shoe, and barely escape obliteration by a magnifying glass. Back home, Z is declared a traitor by the general, and honored as a folk hero by the workers, who join arms for a teary "Give Z a Chance." Bala is suddenly kidnaped and imprisoned, and Z is forced to return home to expose a plot to destroy the colony.
"Antz" occasionally hints at broad social satire, a la portions of George Orwell's "Animal Farm" and its barnyard revolt. Large signs are posted around the insects' workplace, encouraging the employees of the state to "conquer idleness" and suggesting that "nothing satisfies like work." Z, already something of a rebel in his orderly society, eventually takes the advice of dying soldier Barbatus (Danny Glover): "Don't follow orders your whole life," says the older man, whose head has been severed from his body by the vicious termites. "Think for yourself."
The film, though, is much less a political parable than it is a straightforward comic adventure, buoyed by Allenesque humor and packed with plenty of visual surprises. Kids may be delighted by the strange sights and sounds, but the adults will be the ones catching all the wisecracks.
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