Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about DreamWorks and the vast variation in quality amongst their output. Unlike Disney, Pixar, or even Studio Ghibli, DreamWorks animation isn’t really talked about as a whole very much. In fact, outside a new movie coming out, I don’t hear much about them at all, except for maybe Shrek. Since I’ve been through Disney a few times and not much is happening right now, I thought it might be fun to do a DreamWorks retrospective. Their first release was Antz, and while it may be a little cliché, rather than just reviewing it, I’d like to contrast it to A Bug’s Life, the film it sought to beat and which came out a month later. It’s no secret that when Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney, it wasn’t on the best terms. Following nearly a decade of critical and financial success, the head of motion pictures had been lobbying to move up in the company but wasn’t well-liked, and had made an enemy of Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew. Roy threatened Michael Eisner with a proxy fight if he promoted Katzenberg, which led to the latter bitterly vacating the company altogether. However, the story didn’t stop there. When Katzenberg founded DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, he had some movie ideas taken directly from Disney and Pixar pitch meetings. The first and most obvious of these copies came in the form of 1998’s Antz, which debuted just over a month before John Lasseter’s A Bug’s Life. This would be Pixar’s second release and a test of the studio’s mettle. Sure, Toy Story was a huge financial and critical hit. It would reshape the landscape of American animation and spawn a massive franchise, including toys, apparel, and more. But A Bug’s Life would prove, one way or another, whether Pixar was a one-hit-wonder or the new industry standard. Regardless of how petty and sad the plan to one-up the movie was, it was brilliant. Today I’d like to dive into that age-old question: Antz or A Bug’s Life? Let’s have a look.
I’m more familiar with A Bug’s Life, having owned the VHS and various toys from it as a kid. However, it was never one of my favorites. I don’t know if I just didn’t find the insect characters appealing or didn’t understand the story, but it couldn’t compare to Toy Story, which was my favorite during my formative years. I also don’t remember any substantial commercial presence for the film. However, I’d be interested to hear from people who were older when it came out. When I was a teenager, I became hyper-interested in Pixar’s films, staff, and inner workings. When I went back and re-watched them all (except for Wall-E, which I was seeing for the first time), I noticed that Randy Newman’s soundtrack is pretty good. The animation is very impressive for its time, and much of the work done on plants and nature would be put to good use in later features. The voice cast is outstanding, led by a quirky Dave Foley as Flik, high-strung Princess Atta (Julie Louis-Dreyfuss), and Kevin Spacey at his most intimidating as the villain Hopper. Phyllis Diller gets a couple of funny lines in as the ant queen.
It’s been noted that A Bug’s Life’s plot is very reminiscent of both Seven Samurai and its American remake The Magnificent Seven. However, the twist here is that Flik’s heroes he brings to save the ant colony aren’t cowboys or samurai, they’re clowns. Rosie (Bonnie Hunt), Slim (David Hyde Pierce), Francis (Dennis Leary), and the other circus performers accept Flik’s job reluctantly and without understanding what it is they need to do. This leads to the dreaded “liar revealed” moment when Flik has to reveal his plan and the carnies’ true identities to the ant colony. Almost everything in A Bug’s Life is serviceable, or even good. I like Hopper a lot as a villain; his design and Kevin Spacey’s voicework are really effective. You can literally see why the ants fear him. However, the film doesn’t quite succeed at endearing the audience to Flik by the end. There are a lot of movies where the hero starts out a loser who can’t get anything right. In fact, I like a lot of movies like that, and it can be a great setup. For this to work, you must make a convincing case as to why the audience should care about this person. Flik begins the movie by nearly killing the Princess (his love interest), destroying the food offering for the grasshoppers, and angering Hopper, doubling the quota for his fellow ants. The misunderstanding in hiring the carnies makes everyone look bad; it just doesn’t feel like a believable misunderstanding. Their ire with Flik when they realize the error doesn’t seem justified at all. He told them he needed brave warriors, and the fact that they thought he meant actors to play warriors is a little dumb. I also find the eventual relationship between Flik and Atta forced and unbelievable. From the film’s very beginning, the Princess is nothing but unpleasant towards Flik. I can actually understand this to a degree, as even just watching his antics unfold can be frustrating. Flik causes catastrophic accidents, and as the future Queen of the Colony, Atta suffers the consequences, particularly where Hopper is concerned. It makes both characters a little unlikable. Flik creates very real problems for his colony in his efforts to stand out, and Atta is almost always unpleasant and downright mean. It feels like any tenderness towards Flik on the Princess’ part comes too little, too late. Her apology and offer of friendship are based on a lie anyway. By this point, Flik knows the carnies aren’t the heroes he had hoped to find, and tries to keep the lie going with an elaborate plan B. I also wonder why the Royal Family and the other ants helped Flik with the bird if they believed that the “warriors” could handle Hopper on their own. It feels at times like A Bug’s Life is trying to make all of its major characters look dumb, cruel, or sometimes both. I have seen worse cases of this in other stories, and it doesn’t entirely ruin the movie. But for me, the characters in a film absolutely make or break it. If I love the characters, I’ll tolerate a lot of mediocrity in the plot and visuals. However, if I feel negatively or indifferent towards the characters, it’s hard for me to care about the movie.
The one big exception here, as I mentioned earlier, is Hopper. Hopper isn’t terribly complex, and we don’t really know much about his background or motivation, but that’s OK. The animation on him, Spacey’s performance, and some of his dialogue are so good that I don’t even miss the other stuff you usually expect in a good villain. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I rooted for Hopper, as he’s subjugating another species just because he can. All of the voice work and character designs are pretty good. In Hopper’s case, they managed to combine those elements with a consistently written character who has a clear motivation and may be the smartest one in the whole movie. I think it’s a little silly how the grasshoppers sound like motorcycles when they fly, and Hopper yells, “Let’s ride!” and some of his sidekicks are annoying. However, Hopper is my favorite character in the movie, warts and all.
Antz is a movie I never really saw as a kid, and have only seen twice since. I was never really drawn to it in part because of how ugly it is. The characters, landscapes, and plants in this movie are actively, seemingly intentionally ugly. One of the best things about A Bug’s Life is how bright, colorful, and alive it looks. No matter what’s happening on screen, the film is never boring to look at and was revolutionary at the time. All of the ants in Antz are this awful burgundy-sand color, their faces are wonky and unpleasant to look at, and some of them have multiple legs. I know that’s more realistic, but I don’t like looking at it for 90 minutes. It’s also strange that this movie went to the lengths to steal “Bug City” from A Bug’s Life, yet Z and Princess Bala are only there for one short scene. In A Bug’s Life, this was a major plot point, as Flik wanted to find help there in tough big city bugs. But in Antz, Z (Woody Allen) conspires to go there because he’s a weirdo who doesn’t fit in, and Princess Bala (Sharon Stone) ends up going against her will. She’s essentially kidnapped by Z, a character we’re supposed to like and who she ends up falling in love with. Even though I don’t like Flik much and he isn’t a well-developed character, Z is so much worse. Flik is a bit selfish and wants to prove himself, but Z literally doesn’t care about anything or anyone but himself.
The poor, put-upon Princess (oh look, another stolen plot point) just isn’t happy with her life and the expectations put on her. She doesn’t want to marry General Mandible (Gene Hackman), a stranger who only cares about military prowess and power, and poop out kids for the rest of her life. Her mother, the Queen (Anne Bancroft), isn’t very receptive to these arguments, and Bala decides to sneak out for one night of fun. She meets Z at a bar, and the two quickly hit it off because he’s not like the people she usually meets, but also probably because he’s the first worker she does meet. While I think Flik and Atta’s relationship is rushed and unbelievable, Z and Bala are worse. So, so much worse. As I stated, he kidnaps her and still sees himself as the victim/hero. Once they’re out of the anthill, he promises her fun and adventure in the big city. Even though she wasn’t happy with her role as Princess, Bala doesn’t actually want to run away searching for a city she doesn’t even believe exists. Bala is more likable than Atta and is actually nice to Z until he crosses a severe line in taking her hostage. Z, on the other hand, is significantly worse than Flik. In addition to being a self-interested failure, he’s just annoying the entire runtime of the movie. He isn’t funny, charming, sympathetic, or even pitiful. He’s just a whiny guy who feels entitled to more than life has granted him. This could have been done well, or at least better, but it just isn’t. They go out of their way to make Z quirky, but it’s not endearing at all. I don’t understand why Weaver (Sylvester Stallone) or Azteca (Jennifer Lopez) would even want to be friends with this whiny little creep. Also, Azteca? They named the character voiced by a Latina woman… Azteca? I don’t really care about this stuff for the most part, but I can only imagine how some people would respond to that… joke? Pun? This movie is hot garbage.
Antz also features the voice talents of Dan Aykroyd, Danny Glover, and Christopher Walken, who are all pretty good. Aykroyd’s voice is unrecognizable. With Glover’s character Barbatus, they try to establish a darker tone, showing how Mandible uses and abuses his men in pointless wars. His death scene is actually pretty disturbing, too. But this contributes to a tonal dissonance in the film. Z befriends Barbatus and is horrified when he dies, but he doesn’t learn anything from this. Barbatus has no lasting effect on Z as a character or the story of Antz. This just convinces Z of what he already knew, that the hierarchy in the ant colony is wrong and exploitative. But Z never does anything to change this or help people like his dead friend; he just does his best to escape and take the hot (by bug standards?) Princess with him. The tone throughout Antz is uneven and just unpleasant. At times, it’s a crass comedy. At others, it aims (and fails) to be a smart commentary on society and the individual’s role in it.
As for Walken, he’s good. He plays Cutter, Mandible’s sidekick, who helps him keep the ants in line. In the end, he somewhat predictably helps Z and the others, overthrowing Mandible and freeing Bala from her engagement. This film has an impressive cast, even more so than A Bug’s Life. I don’t like any of the characters in Antz except for Barbatus and, unsurprisingly, Mandible; Gene Hackman is excellent in the role. Similarly to Hopper, Mandible is a brute who believes in a hierarchy that puts him at the top. The big difference is that Hopper hates all ants and sees them as tools. In contrast, Mandible sees soldier ants as inherently superior to workers.
Despite all of the intentional similarities between Antz and A Bug’s Life, the two films come to wildly different conclusions. Antz ends with Z explaining that life is about being able to make your own choices. Antz clumsily delivers a message that it’s ultimately about the individual and his freedom to do as he pleases. On the other hand, A Bug’s Life reaffirms the importance of teamwork and the community as a whole. I think both perspectives are true and valid, but the former is hugely unlikeable as a theme. And given that the individual we’ve spent the film following is Z, I don’t care about his freedom or right to choose. At the film’s end, I don’t care about the struggles presented because the characters experiencing them aren’t likable, with the possible exception of Bala. And she’s ferried around through the film as a helpless passenger anyway. The way she’s portrayed very much goes against the film’s overall message. As a whole, Antz is just an unlikeable, unpleasant experience with annoying characters and a bad message that is somehow heavy-handed and half-hearted at the same time. A Bug’s Life is better visually and more consistent tonally and thematically, but still has problems with its characters and feels insignificant and slight. I’m no huge fan of either movie, but I give the overall edge to A Bug’s Life.