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DreamWorks Animation Countdown 1: ‘Antz’

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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.

DreamWorks Antz Title Screen

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.

Z, the protagonist of DreamWorks' Antz

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.

Z and Bala dancing in DreamWorks' Antz

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.

Z and Bala running from a magnifying glass in DreamWorks' Antz

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

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About Amber

Amber is an imaginative storyteller and visual artist whose greatest ambition is to tell meaningful stories that resonate with people. Since she was young, Amber has enjoyed escaping to faraway worlds through animation, and has continued to follow animation into adulthood because of its limitless storytelling possibilities. Picking favorites is nearly impossible, but Amber would say her top animated films include The Little Mermaid, The Incredibles, The Emperor’s New Groove, and Frozen. She graduated with a B.A. in Interactive Media/Graphic Design and a minor in Journalism, and is currently working as an advertising designer. When she’s not at her day job, Amber can be found working on digital illustrations and photo edits, drafting a new fiction story, or crafting a new cosplay. Send her a tweet at @amber_ld.
  • Manuel Orozco

    I’m in a minority who believes Antz and Bug’s Life are on par with each other. They do have similar casts of characters but how their stories and styles of humor contrast ultimately makes them stand out! However I watched Bug’s Life more than Antz.

  • Rachel Wagner

    I recently rewatched Antz and it was better than I remembered. It goes a lot of different ways and is muddled but I liked the humor and some of the ideas about war and power are interesting. It was ambitious so I give them some slack for the problems

  • Dan Siciliano

    I remembered comparing both “Antz” and “A Bug’s Life” at the same time these movies came out. The male ant protagonist, the supporting “bugs-rather-than-ants” characters, the princess ant love interest, etc.
    But I do like “Antz” for some of its really strange ideas like the interiors of the anthill being city-like, the villain (who prefers the strong over the weak), the humor, the score by John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams and the battle sequence between the soldier ants and the termites. Gross yet compelling at the same time.

  • I’m not gonna compare it to A Bug’s Life, but I overall enjoyed the film. The score is brilliant, and I liked the more mature humour (though they do cross a line at times). The animation is pretty nice and unique, though the colour palette can be a bit distracting though. My main issue with the film is that the two main characters are way too unlikable, and their dialogue is pretty bad. Overall, the major theme is what this film is remembered for, and it overall did that pretty well.

  • Totally remember watching this growing up and just loved it a lot more than Bugs Life as a kid, & seeing them back to back I do prefer this one a bit more just for how bizzare it was for me as a kid at the time
    Also seeing this not too long ago recently I’m really shocked how my parents even let me watch it with all the low key swearing/innuendos like DANG! But despite that its a really fun feature and especially interesting to watch back now fully knowing some history about it 🙂

  • Jordan Briskin

    I’ve only seen ANTZ once, and to be truthful, I didn’t really enjoy it; it’s utterly lacking in charm, and the visual similarities to A BUG’S LIFE are just too obvious to ignore.

    • Amber Dvorak

      I will agree here that A Bug’s Life is a far more charming movie, and that’s one of the reasons I prefer it. But what Antz sets out to do, it does well.

  • Jeremiah

    Can’t say I’ve ever seen this one. Along with a lot of Dreamwork’s early let’s-rip-off-Disney movies. Supposedly, though, this is a pretty good one.

  • Alex Beezley

    I personally like Antz slightly better than A Bug’s Life, primarily due to the darker themes and the stronger voice acting. What is most interesting about this film is that it does not feel like the type of movie that DreamWorks Animation is known for today. However, I consider both films to be merely good and not among the best films of either studio.

  • AndreTheGoon

    A Bug’s Life and Antz are two completely different story’s. Even though i did enjoyed Antz, i still prefer watching A Bug’s Life. Just because i remember watching the trailer and being fascinated with Pixar’s work. Overall, both movies are great.

  • Roy K.

    I watched this a while back when I was little. Having watched it again now I can’t believe I missed all the socialist undertones, I mean all I really understood was that Z didn’t want to be put in a single box his entire life. Now i think I like it much more!

    • Manuel Orozco

      I understand socialist undertones can be tough for a 6 year old can get the point out of.

    • Amber Dvorak

      I agree – watching it as an adult is a completely different experience!