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Workers' Compensation

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 Allen) 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 by General Mandible (Gene Hackman) and his aide-de-camp Colonel Cutter (Christopher Walken). With his Patton-sized 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, only 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 noncomformity in an ant colony. Their best set pieces have a graceful lunacy. When Z finds himself with Princess Bala at a dance featuring hundreds of worker ants, they pair off to the strains of "Guantanamera" and pirouette around the lock-step paces of their companions.

Sequences such as that one help humanize--or is it insectize?--the show. Computer-generated art often has a cold, plastic-like sheen, with the colors coming across as manufactured. Here we are so pulled in by the characters and the story that the sheer 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 ochers 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.

Antz has two distinct looks: The underground sequences, which are shadowy and forbidding, and the above-ground 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 sole 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 behind their ant creations--which also include Jennifer Lopez, Dan Aykroyd, Danny Glover and John Mahoney--and playing up the connections to such famous films as E.T. (1982). 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 like to have seen 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 devolves into a battle-zone jamboree. And it doesn't quite recognize the nuttiness inherent in making an anti-totalitarian 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're stepping.

Antz.
Directed by Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson. Written by Todd Alcott, Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz. Voices by Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sylvester Stallone, Anne Bancroft, Gene Hackman and Christopher Walken.

 
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