I saw 'Antz,' the new Dreamworks animated film, at a Saturday afternoon screening out in the burbs, where two thirds of the audience was under six; and what was most noticeable about the film was that all the laughter, such as it was, in fact the only audible responses that I could tell, came from the adults in the theatre. Now the child in me, normally eighty percent by weight, wanted to like the film, but its only appeal was to the adult, the other twenty percent, which is pretty thin when you think about it.
It isn’t that 'Antz' is a bad film, or that children shouldn’t see it -- I think children should see any film they want to see, just as they should read any books they want to read -- but it’s just that 'Antz' is not a good children’s film. Yet it’s been hyped and promoted as a children’s film -- Somehow we still equate animation with kids, and live action with grownups. It’s like saying that Doonesbury and Tom Tomorrow and Dilbert are children’s comic strips because they’re drawn and not photographed or written as prose.
What is interesting about 'Antz' -- what’s fascinating about it -- is that it’s a rather dark, Marxist allegory of a totalitarian society and a revolt by the workers in the name of justice and freedom, a kind of obverse of Orwell. It’s like one of those Maoist primers for the Chinese masses, those book-length comic strips of how the people took power for themselves. It begins with one worker who wants to be his own master, and the movement grows as more and more workers start believing in themselves. In fact, they even dance to the old left-wing Cuban battle song "Guantanamera," the one we all learned from Pete Seeger. Of course, unlike the Maoists, it ends with democracy, but you could still use this in a twentieth-century government class. Think of Franco’s Spain, Pinochet’s Chile, and you get the idea.
All of which is not to say that I disliked the movie. I liked it, but then I’m not six years old. Anytime you get a movie with Woody Allen as the hero doing his old shtick from the sixties and seventies, I’m in his corner. This is a throwback to the days of ‘Sleeper’ and ‘Love and Death,’ overlaid with bits of ‘Wag the Dog.’ At one point where the evil general is starting a war against the termites, Allen says, "Why don’t we just try to influence their political process with campaign contributions?"
Don’t be misled by the name actors who do the voices in the film. They’re fine, but they don’t add anything to the wit or strengthen either the plot or the characters for us, and frankly I think the people who voice the Simpsons might have done a better job.
Technically, this isn’t strictly animation in the Disney sense, or even ‘Toy Story,’ which built its characters in a virtual world pixel by pixel. Here, for closeups, the animators started with video of real faces in motion, and then colored and morphed them into the style of the film. For shots of the masses, and for the sequence that takes place outside the anthill, on the surface of the earth, the animation is more conventional. An odd effect, for me, is that the ants all walk on their two hind legs, so that we see them stand, like humans, as they talk and interact. But they’re not ant-like when they do it. Real ants have the ability to stand and walk on four of their six legs and still raise their heads, and could have been animated to be more ant-like. Oh well. Let’s wait for ‘A Bug’s Life’ and see how Disney does.