Directors: Eric Darnell, Tim Johnson
Cast: Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Sylvester Stallone, Jennifer Lopez, Christopher Walken
Watch Antz online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Amazon Instant Video / Google Play / Sky Store
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. On Fridays, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
The fact that Antz is DreamWorks’ first animated feature is something of a black mark on the studio’s record. Aside from the quality of the film itself, the circumstances behind its production involved alleged plagiarism by the studio’s co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had just left Disney, and a public feud with Pixar figureheads John Lasseter and Steve Jobs, who were hard at work on their second film, A Bug’s Life, when this rival project was announced.
On a superficial level, it’s not hard to spot the similarities: both tell stories of a worker ant who wants more from colony life and falls for the queen’s daughter. Specifically, the neurotic Z (voiced by Woody Allen) spends all day digging with his colleague, Azteca (Jennifer Lopez), and grousing to his soldier friend, Weaver (Sylvester Stallone). In a misguided bid to impress Princess Bala (Sharon Stone), Z trades places with Weaver for a day and becomes cannon fodder for a genocidal plot concocted by General Mandible (Gene Hackman).
Whether Katzenberg deliberately stole the idea to base a movie around ants or not, the film was rushed to completion in order to get it out in cinemas before Pixar’s ant movie and it shows. Considering it was only the second fully computer-generated film of all time, the animation is pretty good and there are some interesting set pieces here and there. It’s the story, and, to a lesser extent, the script (by Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz, and Todd Alcott) that lets this down.
While there are some characterful quirks and even a couple of funny lines scattered throughout, the story is utterly mechanical, combining some Chinese whispers of whatever Katzenberg gleaned about A Bug’s Life from his conversations with Lasseter with a dozen other dusty old tropes from his tenure at Disney. It gives those conventions the same wry side-eye that has become known as “DreamWorks face”, without ever dodging a single one of them. It has none of the finesse or hilarity of the studio’s second, more beloved animated outing, 2001’s Shrek.
Speaking of Katzenberg’s tenure at Disney, we see the start of his studio’s trend of going after big name actors, as he successfully managed with Robin Williams in Aladdin. But here, the choice of Allen to voice the lead shows the film’s comedic influences up for what they are. Even with a script designed to ape his style of humour and some uncredited rewrites by the man himself, it’s crucially just not that funny.
As Z, Allen’s voicing his one character again, which goes to show that even when he doesn’t actually appear on-screen, he’s significantly worse as a screen presence than he is as a writer or director. As part of his rewrites, he grossly quotes himself from Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask) in creepily telling Bala that “I was going to include you in my most erotic fantasies”.
As to the rest of the voice cast, Stallone is good in a rare vocal turn, again playing to his strengths by voicing a lovable lug, and Christopher Walken does exactly what you hire Christopher Walken to do as a scene-stealing, morally grey henchman. If nothing else, it’s been designed for the chosen cast, whose features have been caricatured onto their insect counterparts.
DreamWorks Animation has produced more memorable fare in its later years, by branching out from its all-star pop culture parodies and ever-diminishing Shrek sequels. Still, to give credit where its due, this debut feature does have some ambitious satire of foreign policy and class infrastructure within the colony, the likes of which has never been seen in the studio’s output again.
When that lands, it provides all the comedic highlights in the film, but taken as part of the overall picture, Antz remains a movie that feels more calculated to entertain chuckling arts critics than a family audience. It’s no bad thing to make an animation for older audiences, but taken on its own merits, and not as an extension of Allen’s filmography of endlessly revolving returns to form, it collapses under its own body weight.
Next time on The 90s On Netflix…
“Hello, I’m Dr Bean. Apparently.”
Antz (1998) is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.
Where can I watch Antz (1998) on pay-per-view VOD?