The ants in Antz show a lot of personality. The film is the best example yet of how a fully animated computer-generated feature can delineate facial movement. Toy Story (1995), the first such feature to be released, was brasher and more child-friendly, but Antz is more of a -- how shall I say it? -- character study. You can tell that from its very first scene: The worker ant Z (whose voice is provided by Woody Alllen) has a therapy session with his analyst (Paul Mazursky) in which he bemoans being the middle child in a family of five million. He fears he is insignificant, and his analyst responds, "You've made a real breakthrough. You are insignificant."
Z is the schnook hero in this insect odyssey; it's the perfect touch that he has Woody Allen's voice. Z doesn't look like Allen -- none of the computer-generated forms bear a likeness to the various stars who lend them voice -- but somehow we get the impression we're watching a Woody Allen performance. And it's one of his best. Being an ant becomes him.
The worker ants' construction site is a dungeonlike enclosure that resembles the underground machine world in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926). Dank and totalitarian, this setting is ruled over by General Mandible (Gene Hackman) and his aide-de-camp Colonel Cutter (Christopher Walken). With his Patton-size dreams of glory, Mandible convinces the colony's queen (Anne Bancroft) that a termite attack is imminent and a preemptive strike required. The outcome of the termite/soldier-ant war is a squashy affair in which Z alone survives, simply because he is too neurotic and dazed to get chomped. Inadvertently he becomes a hero to the worker ants, and of course ends up becoming a real hero, too. He even gets the girl, the snooty Princess Bala (Sharon Stone), who has no use for him at first but comes around. Could Karl Marx -- or Groucho, for that matter -- have predicted that the triumph of the proletariat would come out looking like this?
It's a very funny idea for the filmmakers -- directors Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson, plus screenwriters Todd Alcott, Chris Weitz, and Paul Weitz -- to set an ode to nonconformity in an ant colony. Their best set pieces have a graceful lunacy. When Z finds himself with Princess Bala at a dance with hundreds of worker ants, they pair off to the strains of "Guantanamera" and pirouette around their lock-stepping companions.
Sequences such as this help soften and humanize -- or is it insectize? -- the show. Computer-generated art often has a cold, plasticlike sheen, with the colors looking manufactured. Here we are so pulled in by the characters and the story that the mechanics of what we are watching fall away. (The film's chief "character designer" is Raman Hui, who also supervised the animation with Rex Grignon.) The computer design is shrewdly conceived. The browns and ochres and yellows of the ants and yellow jackets and termites have a real luster; the big, startling faces of General Mandible and Z's soldier-ant buddy Weaver (Sylvester Stallone) are like African masks.
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Antz has two distinct "looks": The underground sequences, which are shadowy and forbidding, and the aboveground scenes, in which Z and the princess race through open fields under blue skies. It's heaven for them until they find themselves dodging human picnickers; the rubber undersole of a sneaker has never seemed so lethal. We don't get exhausted watching all this computer-generated stuff because the filmmakers keep the action buzzing. This is a rare achievement; animated films, even some pretty good ones, tend to wear out their welcome a lot faster than live-action ones. Maybe that's because after a while the cartoon barrage is too much to digest; we want something to hold on to, even if it's a real-life, second-rate actor posing against a studio backdrop.
The filmmakers responsible for Antz get around this problem of real life versus animated life by emphasizing the celebrity voices (which also include Jennifer Lopez, Dan Aykroyd, Danny Glover, and John Mahoney) behind their ant creations and by playing up the connections to famous films such as E.T. The ready-made familiarity of this film, despite its technical novelty, is what makes it both accessible and a bit timid. Although I enjoyed it, I would have liked to see more wit in the working out of the plot. Why shouldn't these computer-generated films have the same storybook transcendence and inventiveness as the best live-action family entertainment fare? The letdown with Antz is that it degenerates into a battle-zone jamboree. And it doesn't quite recognize the nuttiness inherent in making an antitotalitarian movie featuring ants. Its celebrations of individuality are heartfelt, which softens everything. But who needs life lessons in a movie like this? The best parts of Antz don't try to teach us anything -- except maybe to watch where we step.
Directed by Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson. Written by Todd Alcott, Chris Weitz, and Paul Weitz. Voices provided by Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sylvester Stallone, Anne Bancroft, Gene Hackman, and Christopher Walken.