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by: Scott Renshaw

So DreamWorks' ANTZ gets to be first out of the gate in the Computer-Animated Insect Sweepstakes, beating Disney/Pixar's A BUG'S LIFE to the screen by a good two months. The folks at DreamWorks probably felt that meant they could set the standard and avoid comparisons, but that's not entirely true. Disney's 1995 TOY STORY became the first, best standard-bearer, a wonderfully witty adventure which established that no amount of visual virtuosity could push aside the power of a great script. There was little doubt that three years of technological innovation would make ANTZ more spectacular to look at. The question was whether these anthropomorphized insects would be asked to carry a story that felt like twenty times their body weight.

It looks like the film-makers behind ANTZ learned the right lessons from TOY STORY. ANTZ may not be in TOY STORY's league when it comes to charm and ingenuity, but it's a clever and appealing piece of work in its own right. The oddly spelled title actually refers to the story's protagonist, a lowly and unfulfilled worker ant called Z (Woody Allen). Trapped in the ant colony's rigid caste system, Z longs to find his own destiny, which might even include romancing the unapproachable Princess Bala (Sharon Stone). In order to catch Bala's eye, Z switches places with his soldier ant pal Weaver (Sylvester Stallone), unwittingly setting off a social revolution. Even more unwittingly, he discovers that head soldier General Mandible (Gene Hackman) has sinister plans for the colony.

The goofy socio-political overtones of Z's struggle for individuality are good for a few chuckles, though it's not entirely clear from one moment to the next what the "message" is. Sometimes it's a treatise on the triumph of personal will over stultifying conformity (nowhere more humorously than in a bar scene where line dancing becomes metaphorical fascism). At other times, the needs of the many are shown to outweigh the needs of the few. And that's not the only place where the story feels less than cohesive. Sub-plots abound, many of which fill time without moving the story anywhere. The ideas for individual scenes play much more effectively in the moment than they do upon reflection, where they don't feel completely unified.

Then again, it's hard not to be caught up in the moment while watching ANTZ. The visuals are nothing short of spectacular, in terms of both scale and individual detail. When thousands of ants form a wrecking ball or a column to serve a unified purpose, thousands of individual limbs and antennae waving, the effect is dazzling. There are also some effectively creepy images of a war between ants and acid-spewing termites (the kind which might spook youngsters). Perhaps even more breath-taking are the facial expressions created for the characters. The movements and reactions are so complete that every ant becomes real on the screen. With so much attention lavished on giving the characters personality, ANTZ never feels merely showy, as impressive as it is from start to finish.

Not that the animators were solely responsible for giving the characters personality. ANTZ boasts an impressive cast of voice talent, from Hackman as the eugenically-inclined dictator-in-waiting to Christopher Walken as he morally ambivalent henchman, from Stallone deftly playing good-natured lug to Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin as a pair of WASP-ish wasps named Chip and Muffy. But the star of the show is Woody Allen, bringing his inimitable, anxiety-ridden nebbishness to Z. Some of his lines are pure vintage Woody (on whether he "laughs in the face of Death": "Actually, I generally...make sarcastic remarks behind Death's back"), which makes it even more of an incongruous pleasure thinking of him as a romantic action hero. His voice performance is one of several reasons ANTZ is plenty of fun, if often in an inside-jokey, over the head of kids


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