Released nearly twenty years ago, back in the autumn of 1998, DreamWorks Animation’s Antz marks several firsts. For starters, it was the first feature film the studio ever made, the initial stepping stone toward DreamWorks’ current status as one of the major animation studios in the U.S. It was also the second feature-length computer-animated film, behind Pixar’s Toy Story in 1995. Compared to Toy Story, however, Antz seems to be mostly forgotten. Looking back, Antz lacks a lot of the charm that has made countless Disney films so popular. Still, the film does have some good things going for it and offers a surprisingly dark yet entertaining take on societal structure within a Central Park anthill.
The movie features a star-studded cast including Woody Allen as protagonist worker ant Z, Sylvester Stallone as buddy soldier ant Weaver, and Sharon Stone as Princess Bala. Instead of delivering a bright, colorful cast of ants like the blue and purple-hued characters of Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, DreamWorks gives us what is in some ways a more realistic animated ant, complete with six legs (not two) and colored in earthy shades of brown, tan, and orange. There is still some sense of anthropomorphism in the character design, since the ants still walk upright and their teeth are oddly, and somewhat unsettlingly, humanlike.
Also unlike A Bug’s Life, a significant portion of Antz takes place within the anthill. This setting features a darker color palette that thematically reflects the colony’s imperfect social system and the impending dangers it faces. Or perhaps the filmmakers just wanted to be more realistic, but regardless, the setting works. Despite ant-made interior lighting, the feeling of the dank oppressive underground really comes across, and it later makes the contrastingly bright surface world of Insectopia all the more welcoming.
The film opens with our protagonist Z-4195 – Z for short – in a session with a therapist, where he admits to feeling insignificant. The therapist praises this as a “breakthrough.” Z is a worker ant living in an anthill of millions, unsatisfied with what he views as a meaningless, government-dictated life in which individuality is virtually nonexistent. In the anthill, ants are deemed either workers or soldiers at birth, and working (primarily digging through the earth’s soil with miniature pickaxes) is all Z has ever really known.
Things take a turn when Z runs into Princess Bala – who’s ditching the throne for a night to explore the world of the common ant – on the dance floor and finally decides to do something to change his predicament. He convinces his soldier friend Weaver to illegally switch places with him for a day so that he can see the princess again at the royal inspection, and through a series of unexpected events, Z suddenly finds himself a war hero. From here, he unwittingly uses his new prestige to ignite a revolution within the colony just as military leader General Mandible nears completion of a sinister plan to eradicate the entire worker ant population.
The plot can be somewhat predictable; we’ve all seen the underdog’s story before. However, Antz manages to tell it in a previously unexplored setting with an interesting juxtaposition of more mature themes with the traditionally family-friendly medium of animation. Even if you look beyond the governmental overtones (particularly relevant in light of world events today), you have darker scenes such as a battle in which an army of giant termites shoot acid out of their foreheads, murdering hordes of pitifully underprepared ants. We also have a beheading and a magnifying glass that burns ants to bits, if you’re into that sort of thing.
All in all, Antz is a worthwhile watch, although better suited to older kids and adults than say, A Bug’s Life (which was also released in the fall of 1998 to much rivalry and comparison). Its basic story may have been told numerous times, but the overall look and feel of Antz keeps it fresh. It’s at times serious, at times funny, and, throughout, a visual spectacle for its time. Computer graphics may have advanced considerably since the film’s release, but the overall world design and unique small-world perspective prevent it from aging too badly. If you’ve never seen Antz, it’s definitely worth a viewing as the DreamWorks Animation film that started it all.
Edited by: Kajsa Rain Forden