“Antz” is a dazzling delight. This initial collaboration between DreamWorks and partial subsid Pacific Data Images reps just the second fully computer- animated feature to be released, after “Toy Story,” and while this new effort doesn’t possess the potential to match the levels of Disney’s 1995 CGI blockbuster, its considerable appeal should translate into a long and healthy B.O. life. The commercial question marks relate to the slightly sophisticated nature of the story, non-kid-related characters and the ability of the Woody Allen-voiced lead character to click with the sort of wide audience the comic auteur has never before reached.
A sort of “Metropolis” meets “Microcosmos” with a commoner-princess lovers-on-the-run romance at its core, “Antz” is beating to market by seven weeks Disney’s computer animated “A Bug’s Life,” which reput-edly has a very similar, insect-centered storyline but also boasts original Randy Newman songs and is allegedly more child-friendly. No company has yet cracked Disney hegemony in the animated field, and it will be interesting to see how this latest chapter in the war plays out.
On its own terms, “Antz” is fresh and inventive, visually stimulating and extremely well-served by a starry cast largely new to the animation field. Appropriately enough for a feature toplining Allen, the picture starts on an analyst’s couch, as a meek worker ant named Z complains about his upbringing as “the middle child in a family of 5 million” and kvetches about his feelings of insignificance in the giant ant colony, only to be told by the shrink, “You are insignificant.”
Slinking off to his job digging a giant new tunnel, Z commiserates with his amiable co-worker, Azteca (Jennifer Lopez), who accepts her lot in life as a tiny cog in the enormous construct that is ant civilization. The physical grandeur of this underground totalitarian world is dazzlingly displayed in the early going, as countless workers are driven to extremes by Gen. Mandible (Gene Hackman), a martinet with dreams of even greater glory, and his aide de camp Col. Cutter (Christopher Walken).
Mandible convinces his queen (Anne Bancroft) that the colony is threatened with imminent invasion by termites and that he must therefore launch a preemptive strike. On the night before the invasion, the queen’s daughter, Princess Bala (Sharon Stone), who is unhappily engaged to Mandible, goes slumming in a bar to see what the simple folk do and asks an unsuspecting Z to dance. This triggers a vastly amusing episode in which, to the strains of “Guantanamera,” the pair dance with improvisatory glee against a backdrop of dozens of other ants moving about in coordinated conformity. On this night as well, a bar drunk informs Z of an above-ground haven he calls Insectopia, something the authorities predictably deny exists at all.
So delirious is Z from his encounter with Bala that he convinces a friendly, stalwart soldier, Weaver (Sylvester Stallone), to let him take his place in the military review, hoping this will allow him to see Bala once again. What this gets the cowardly imp is a place on the front lines, where termites spew bile and chow down on ants while the latter assault and gore their gargantuan foes in a mild CGI version of “Starship Troopers.” By a fluke, the neurotic, terrified Z is the only survivor of the massacre, and he leaves the battlefield with the final words of a fallen friend ringing in his ears: “Don’t follow orders all your life.”
Despite being welcomed as a war hero back at the colony, Z is threatened by Mandible and is more or less forced into kidnapping Princess Bala. Much of the remainder of the story takes place in the open air, where the pair must elude Mandible’s posses, contend with the occasional human being and such manmade gear as sneakers and a flame-igniting magnifying glass, and encounter the unlikely paradise of Insectopia, falling in love all the while. Action climax, precipitated by the megalomaniacal Mandible’s betrayal of the colony, returns matters underground.
The humor in the script by Todd Alcott and Chris and Paul Weitz effectively counterbalances the potential silliness of a pro-individualist, anti-automaton theme in an ant context. Allen’s distinctively harried delivery further helps, and it comes as little surprise to learn that the actors were all videotaped as they recorded their dialogue so that the animated characters could assume some of their physical characteristic as they spoke and reacted. (Allen also futzed around with his dialogue to tailor it to his speaking patterns, although he receives no writing credit.)
At the same time, it must be stressed that, except for Stallone’s muscle-bound warrior, the ants are not designed to resemble the actors voicing them, which makes the romance between Allen and Stone not only possible but palatable. With the CGI technique nicely accommodating the hard surfaces of insect bodies, the ants have a brown hue and expressive eyes that vaguely recall E.T. Even the sometimes jerky character movements seem appropriate to the arthropods, while the backgrounds are magnificently designed with detail and bold, clear colors that continually provide feasts for the eyes.
Directors Eric Darnell, a commercials vet well known for his animated short “Gas Planet,” and Tim Johnson, noted for his work on “The Simpsons’ ” 1995 Halloween special, “Homer,” keep the picture moving at a lively but never hectic clip. Vocal performances are outstanding across the board, with Allen and Stone proving to be most engaging leads, Hackman and Stallone excelling as very different kinds of soldiers, Lopez giving appealing blue-collar shadings to her worker ant, and Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin spot-on as a snooty but loving wasp couple (in both senses of the term).
The energetic and resourceful background score by Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell is abetted by several standards that are used in markedly witty ways. PG rating shouldn’t suggest that there is anything remotely offensive in the picture, only that some of its content might sail over the heads of kids younger than 7 or 8.