The Films of Dreamworks: “Antz” (1998)

antz_ver3_xlgDreamworks must be one of the most successful companies to be the result of a feud.

Jeffrey Katzenberg had been at Walt Disney Animation, there during its 1980s lull and the start of the “Disney Renaissance.” After a fight with Michael Eisner, he left Disney and started Dreamworks SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.  The first film announced to be released by the animation division would be “The Prince of Egypt,” an animated musical telling the story of Moses. While some people view it as a massive “Fuck you” to Disney, it came at a time where every movie studio was desperately trying to emulate Disney and either succeeding (“Anastasia,” “The Prince of Egypt”) or failing massively (“Quest for Camelot,” “The King and I”).

In the midst of the Disney Renaissance was the release of “Toy Story,” which proved to be a big hit for the brand new Pixar. While Pixar proceeded to work on a sequel on “Toy Story,” they also announced a project called “Bugs,” which would focus on a neurotic ant who ends up being a hero, while also falling in love with the princess of the colony. The same year of the release of what was retitled “A Bugs Life,” Dreamworks released what ended up being its first film, “Antz,” a movie about a neurotic ant who ends up being a hero, while also falling in love with the princess of the colony. I will firmly argue “The Prince of Egypt” is not a giant middle finger to Disney, but if this film isn’t, I don’t know what is.

“Antz” does follow the barebones narrative description of “A Bugs Life,” but it also could be described as an animated Woody Allen film. It is a movie with a distinctly mature sense of humor that deals a lot with our place in the world. It’s also a movie in which Woody Allen plays an overbearing creep who kidnaps the female lead, whom he’s obsessed with.

Allen voices Z, a neurotic worker ant who struggles with his day-to-day life in the colony. While he gets along well with fellow worker Azteca (Jennifer Lopez) and Weaver (Sylvester Stallone), a soldier ant, he still finds himself depressed. After Princess Bala (Sharon Stone) decides to visit the bar the colony congregates at, Z becomes infatuated and poses as a warrior ant. After surviving a battle with termites, he is welcomed home as a war hero, but decides to kidnap Princess Bala, who is currently engaged to the fascist leader of the army, General Mandible (Gene Hackman).

When writing about “Despicable Me,” I addressed the idea of what is adult humor in animated films. Animation can result in movies strictly for adults, such as “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut,” or it can result in family movies that have incredibly mature jokes that are clever and sophisticated, such as in quite a few Disney films, “Despicable Me,” and “The Peanuts Movie*”.

Then there is the type of bawdy, gross out humor you find in Dreamworks movies, which I’ll refer to as “Dreamworks Humor.” Dreamworks Humor is often associated with all computer-animated Dreamworks films post-“Shrek” and tend to deal in double entendres that kids won’t understand, gross out humor kids will find funny, and sometimes implied or outright sexual discussions. Dreamworks Humor is found throughout “Antz,” which between that and how dark the film is, I am tempted to suggest it’s not actually a family film and is instead an animated film that managed to get a PG rating. I stopped keeping track of all of the jokes and lines in this film that surprised me, but I did count a comment about drinking from the anus of an aphid, a joke about inbreeding, a scene with bugs eating poop–which, to be fair, is realistic–and a line where Z says Bala had a chance to be in his “erotic fantasies.”

None of these lines make you go, “Oh my God, I can’t believe they went there,” like some lines in “Shrek.” It feels more like you’re watching a comedian who thinks they’re edgy saying a bunch of things in an attempt to shock you and make you laugh like Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, or Ali Wong, but they instead just make you have a really uncomfortable night at a club. This is Dreamworks Humor taken to an extreme, which might be the result of it being the studio’s first film and it ultimately being a film to answer the question of, “What if Woody Allen were an ant?”

The film also has the distinct feeling of being rushed. The animation looks awful, although you have to credit Dreamworks on getting the anatomy of bugs right. It doesn’t have the eye-searing shoddiness you find in “Delgo” or “Foodfight,” but there is a very rough feel to every single detail in this film. What particularly hurts it is the fact it was released the same year as both “A Bug’s Life” and “The Prince of Egypt,” which show us you can have very unique and beautiful animated details of grass, water, and leaves and that Dreamworks did have the technology to have richly detailed CGI in animation, even though “The Prince of Egypt” is a traditionally animated film. The timing of this just feels unfortunate, but when would have been a good time to release a movie that is little more than the equivalent of sending a bag of dicks to Michael Eisner and telling him to eat it? A movie doesn’t have to match the level of artistry found with Pixar movies, but even “Despicable Me,” which was made on a smaller budget, had a unique and even whimsical look to it. The film also has an annoying feeling of several frames looking like they were all put through a tilt shift lens, which feels weird since this is animated, but most of the film has a very clear area that is focused in the middle, and the rest looks very blurry. Maybe this was because I was watching it on Netflix on my laptop, but it added to the film feeling like it had a rushed production.

What’s worse is Dreamworks’ first outing is incredibly boring, even if it briefly addresses totalitarianism and fascism. Not every animated film needs to be filled with bright colors, but the script is needlessly tedious. It wasn’t until 19 minutes into the movie I laughed, and that was at a good sight gag. There can even be very serious animated films–minus three massive flaws, I would argue “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is darker and more adult than this–but this is just dull and feels like a first-draft of a movie.

There are some situations where beating a competitor can pay off, but this shows it doesn’t help when there’s a subpar product. Thankfully, there were two better films released that year, one of which was made by the same studio that made “Antz.”

*It’s very Schultz-ian, but I will never stop laughing at every joke about “War and Peace” in “The Peanuts Movie,” even if I now find myself singing songs from “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.”