Antz put DreamWorks Animation at the top of the ant hill. Of course I grew up loving Disney & Pixar, but DreamWorks has always been a top childhood favorite as well. Even though the studio may have started out of spite. Like most rival animation companies, Jeffrey Katzenberg was a disgruntled Disney chairman who left the studio in order to make his own animated movies. Although intending DreamWorks Animation to begin with the traditionally animated Prince of Egypt, Antz was fast-tracked to 1998 just to compete with A Bug’s Life. Two early computer animated ant movies about a misfit in love with a princess who fights for his colony couldn’t have been a coincidence. It was a heated feud that made Antz & A Bug’s Life the biggest copycat movies ever made, but I never questioned it. Although I was only 3 at the time, I loved both ant movies equally. Seeing Antz with my mom and brother is one of my earliest memories.
The biggest difference with Antz (and DreamWorks) is the PG rated edge that its had from the beginning. Despite being a kids film, Antz is loaded with adult themes, sexual innuendo, and a lot of swearing. Mostly thanks to Woody Allen playing nervous drone ant Z. Z is exactly like Allen with his neurotic babbling. Antz deals with societal problems that stem from a colony that never thinks for themselves. Ants are literally assigned worker or soldier at birth. To match that realism, ants have tan exoskeletons and the right number of legs. Z feels inadequate, but all that changes when he dances with Princess Bala in a bar. A lot of unconventional Woody Allen co-stars provide voices. Sharon Stone is the feisty Bala who’s looking to rebel. Sylvester Stallone is Weaver, the muscle bond soldier friend of Z that switches place with him. Just so Z can get closer to the Princess. Gene Hackman is the despicable army ant General Mandible that leads an army to their death and plans to drown the part of the colony he deems weak. Ironically both ant movies have Lex Luthor as their villain.
Meanwhile, Anne Bancroft voices the Queen, Jennifer Lopez voices a worker friend of Z’s, Christopher Walken voices a flying ant colonel, and Danny Glover voices an army sergeant that quickly befriends Z. After cleverly singing “Ants go marching one by one,” an intense battle with termites ensues. Antz is also pretty realistic when it comes to how terrible a bug’s life can really be. Ants are decapitated, burned with a magnifying glass, trapped in water, stepped on, and swatted. Humans are only ever obscured like monsters. Z survives, but ends up with Bala after a misunderstanding. They grow closer after a few arguments and become the first DreamWorks animated couple. Along the way they trek through a picnic where they meet a couple of friendly wasps voiced by Dan Aykroyd & Jane Curtin. Z tries to find the fabled Insectopia which is hilariously just a trash can. Bala is discovered, but Z returns in time to save the colony that learned from his example to think for themselves. They construct an ant ladder and escape the very first use of digital water in film. The computer animation is rough, but no less impressive with its lighting and realistic textures. Antz has a unique maturity that makes it a very underrated piece of animation history.