Review: Antz (dir. Eric Darnell & Tim Johnson, 1998); A Bug’s Life (dir. John Lasseter, 1998)

Review: Antz (dir. Eric Darnell & Tim Johnson, 1998); A Bug’s Life (dir. John Lasseter, 1998) December 1, 1998

antz2Go to the ant, thou moviegoer; consider its ways and be wise. This famous proverb works on the assumption that all ants act and work alike. But what if the ant we considered was a nonconformist, a social misfit who didn’t feel like he or she belonged in proper ant society? Two recent feature-length computer-animated films explore this scenario.

Antz, still going strong after almost two months in theatres, follows the misadventures of Z-4195, an ant who frets that he is "insignificant" because, "when you’re the middle child in a family of five million, you don’t get any attention." Moreover, he’s just one of many worker ants who dig, dig, dig all day long and then head off to the bar for an evening of aphid-excreted beer and dull, formulaic, pre-patterned dancing.

Z’s voice is provided by Woody Allen, and it’s the funniest film he’s been part of in years. Antz is also surprisingly mature for an animated film, commenting directly or indirectly on subjects as diverse as industrial propaganda, class distinctions, militarism, and the tension between individual freedom and social responsibility.

Hoping to impress Princess Bala (Sharon Stone), who he meets in the bar one night, Z switches places with a soldier ant named Weaver (Sylvester Stallone) and finds himself sent into a harrowing battle against a nest of termites. Z survives, somehow, but all the other ants die, including Barbados (Danny Glover), a soldier ant who tells Z, "Don’t make my mistake, kid. Don’t follow orders your whole life. Think for yourself."

Searching for Insectopia

The rest of the film explores the ramifications of that advice, as Z abandons the ant colony — a conformist hive that could stand in as easily for communism as it does for cog-in-the-wheel corporatism — and searches for a mythical land named "Insectopia." Ultimately, however, the film reins in its individualist impulses, as Z uses his newfound freedom to help save the colony from the fascist General Mandible (Gene Hackman).

A Bug’s Life follows a more conventional storyline. Instead of exploring tensions within a given society, it centres on a conflict between an oppressed ant colony and the grasshoppers who have imposed a protection racket on them. Flik (Dave Foley), the misfit of this film, is not a weary neurotic but a scatterbrained genius whose time-saving inventions, while clever, inevitably lead to disaster in his klutzy hands.

The colony is all too eager to get rid of Flik, so, expecting him to get lost, they send him on a quest to find bigger insects who might protect the colony from the grasshoppers. To the colony’s surprise, he returns — with a group of vaudeville flea-circus rejects who think they’re being asked to put on a show.

Technically, A Bug’s Life is as cutting-edge as it gets. The outdoors scenes have a verisimilitude that Antz never quite achieves, and the skin textures, full of pock marks and wrinkles, are impressively lifelike. It’s impossible not to see Flik, who creates an artificial bird out of twigs and leaves, as a stand-in for director John Lasseter, who evidently had a lot of fun simulating reality himself.

But dramatically, the film feels a little too familiar. Kids may not mind, but there’s no real suspense as the plot moves through its twists and turns. The butterfly, praying mantis, walking stick, and fat German caterpillar — to mention but a few — feel like stock characters out of an old Muppets routine, and none of them is ever developed all that fully.

Toy Story, Lasseter’s superb first feature film, focused on internal problems, such as self-doubt and jealousy, and explored attempts to reconcile the individual to the community. A Bug’s Life, by comparison, takes the community more or less for granted and focuses its attentions on defeating the bad guys Out There. (On the other hand, it does take a nice jab at The Lion King’s New Agey "circle of life" philosophy.)

A Bug’s Life is a well-crafted and entertaining film — the end credits sequence alone is among the funniest ever done — but, unlike Antz, it doesn’t give the adult moviegoer much to think about.

— A version of this article was first published in ChristianWeek.

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