If only President Clinton had the time or inclination to lend his vocal talents to an endearing animated ant, he might join Woody Allen as a scandalous public figure redeemed, at least, in the eyes of children (and many of their parents). As the voice of the worker ant Z in DreamWorks' first animated feature, Antz, Allen returns to his original persona: the scrawny, lovable neurotic with a genius for one-liners. Freed of his sad, aging face and the disturbing autobiographical nature of his recent work, Allen seems young and fresh again. Although nothing in Antz matches the opening scene (unfortunately shown in its entirety as a trailer), Z's Allenesque rant from the analysand's couch about his terrible childhood and conflicts concerning 'this gung-ho, super-organism thing,' this fully computer-animated feature with a phenomenal voice cast delivers a pleasurable 83 minutes of fantasy.
Z is a nonconformist in the ultimate programmed society. Born to be a worker ant ('I'm not cut out for work, especially with dirt,' Z complains to his therapist, voiced by Paul Mazursky. 'What about my needs?'), Z yearns for a freer life. He's lifted out of his depression when Bala (Sharon Stone), a rebellious, foxy, pink-eyed ant, asks him to dance at a working-class bar. Against the robotic, uniform dance moves of their fellow ants, Z and Bala 'do their own thing,' including mimicking a famous Pulp Fiction gesture.
When Z discovers that Bala is actually a princess, he trades places with his best friend, Weaver (Sylvester Stallone), a soldier, in order to visit the palace. Unfortunately, the all-powerful, Patton-like commander of the colony, Mandible (Gene Hackman, in inimitable form), has secret plans to wipe out most of the army, and then the workers, in order to propagate a superior breed of ants. Z, even less of a fighter than a dirt shoveler, somehow manages to become the sole survivor of a suicidal battle with gruesome-looking termites, only to become the colony's hero. The celebration of the individual, however, especially one who breaks out of his caste, does not please Mandible, who sets out to crush Z.
Z escapes, however, taking an uncooperative princess with him. In classic romantic-comedy fashion, like Fred and Ginger or Princess Leia and Han Solo before them, these two bicker as a prelude to love. Stone and the expressive animation humorously render Bala's spoiled, sheltered perspective. She haughtily informs Z that she was just slumming when she asked him to dance. He's way beneath her, a lowly, 'schlubby' worker. When Z reminds her that returning to the colony is tantamount to becoming Mandible's wife ('Do you really want to be Mrs. Raving Lunatic?') and a non-stop birthing machine, she agrees to join him in his search for Insectopia, a fabled land where the streets are paved in food.
Antz takes off in these colorful above-ground sequences. In addition to the delicious fun of seeing the world from an ant's-eye view (there's a marvelous scene in which Z and Bala take a perilous ride stuck in chewing gum on the sole of someone's sneaker), we meet some other amusing insects. Dan Aykroyd as the alcohol-addled Chip and Jane Curtin as the patronizing do-gooder Muffy practically steal the show as a couple of WASPy wasps who assist Z and Bala. There is also a funny fireside scene in which some unusually visaged bugs exchange stoned banter.
Making the most of the screenplay's witty dialogue, John Mahoney takes on the voice of the drunken scout who has seen Insectopia, Christopher Walken speaks for Mandible's right-hand man, Cutter, and Jennifer Lopez lends her no-nonsense approach to Azteca, Z's worker friend. Even Danny Glover puts in a vocal appearance as Barbatus, a tender-hearted old soldier ant who takes Z under his wing. And Anne Bancroft speaks regally as the Queen.
Though its message-be your own organism-is hardly original, it's a good one, and Antz animates it in a manner that should please all ages. Who would've thought Woody could be funny without sex?
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