The backstage jockeying for position between the makers of the Disney/Pixar collaboration "A Bug's Life" and DreamWorks' similarly themed "Antz" offers a fascinating glimpse at the vicious competition for audiences of animated films purportedly aimed at the younger set.
Disney folks contend that former executive Jeffrey Katzenberg absconded with their original concept when he left four years ago to co-found DreamWorks. Katzenberg, who beat his old employer to the punch with an Oct. 2 release date for "Antz," in return has accused Uncle Walt's team of the intellectual-property thievery.
After all is said and done, the brouhaha may have been overblown. The two movies, despite more than a few parallels, are worlds apart in tone and overall appeal.
"Antz," largely because of Woody Allen's voice and demeanor as the lead character, in many respects was sharper and funnier, packed with a succession of caustic one-liners sure to fly over the heads of many audience members. The look and the feel, too, were darker than the competition.
"A Bug's Life," made by the same team responsible for the delightful eye candy of "Toy Story," is considerably lighter and brighter, visually and in terms of the story line, than its predecessor.
Flik, given voice by Dave Foley of television's "News Radio," is a fumbling, bumbling worker ant who moonlights as an inventor. One fateful afternoon, after tooling around in his latest food-gathering contraption, he accidentally destroys the colony's supply of grain, painstakingly assembled on the orders of the menacing Hopper (Kevin Spacey) and his tribe of domineering grasshoppers. "It's a bug-eat-bug world out there," declares the evil Hopper, demanding that his meek subjects double their efforts until his return.
The wayward ant, who has a crush on Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), thus is encouraged to leave the colony. He turns his effective banishment into a kind of mythic quest, traveling to a far-flung land in search of a solution for the problems visited on his people.
Flik, in one of the film's most amusing set pieces, arrives in a mock-futuristic big city, where tall buildings are constructed of empty food boxes, and the lightning-speed traffic is really an amazing variety of insects in a huge hurry.
Our hero, soon enough, stumbles into a noisy honky tonk, where sight gags include patrons buzzing over a "poo-poo platter" and a mosquito inflating and falling over after drinking a bloody Mary.
There, he meets a ragtag circus troupe, drinking their troubles away after being fired by their boss, the cranky P.T. Flea (John Ratzenberger). The ensemble of lovable misfits -- distant cousins to the mangled creatures in "Toy Story" -- includes caterpillar Heimlich (Joe Ranft), the sticklike Slim (David Hyde Pierce), butterfly Gypsy (Madeline Kahn) and her husband Manny the preying mantis (Jonathan Harris), beetle Dim (Brad Garrett) and Francis (Denis Leary), a ladybug unhappy with others' confusion about his sexuality.
The entertainers, figuring Flik for a talent scout, agree to return with the outsider, and a comedy of mistaken identities ensues. "When your grasshopper friends get here, we are gonna knock them dead," exclaims Francis, using showbiz language to describe what his host initially believes to be a military action.
That battle, comic and not violent, ultimately does arrive, and the circus folks and their new friends conspire on an ingenious plan to thwart their attackers, who spend off hours socializing to Tex-Mex music under a big sombrero.
Like its rival, "A Bug's Life" rather uncomfortably seems to tack a larger social issue to its meager story. Hopper and his kin, outnumbered 100 to one by the ants, might be virtual oppressors of another race. "If you let one ant stand up to us, then they might all stand up to us," he explains. And Flik, upon leaving on his mission, declares that he's doing it for all his downtrodden kin everywhere.
As you might have guessed, the ants eventually overcome.