Looking back on the film that kickstarted the DreamWorks Animation empire 20 years ago.
Note: a version of this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Antz, which turns 20 in the UK today, and A Bug’s Life are inextricably tied to each other no matter how hard one may wish to explore the former on its own terms. They are, after all, both computer-animated features about ants living in a regimented colony that’s ran oppressively and centred around an oddball misfit questioning their role in society, released in America a month apart from one another by two of the biggest names in animation. And whilst one may wish to read it as an unfortunate coincidence in timing as is often the case in scenarios like these, such as with super-anti-hero sandbox games inFamous and Prototype or the two 2010 deconstructive animated supervillain comedies Despicable Me and Megamind, the perception of DreamWorks’ version of this specific film pitch being a blatant rip-off of Pixar’s version has stuck primarily thanks to the actions of, who else, Jeffrey Katzenberg.
I’m not going to go too into detail about this, both because it would leave little time to discuss Antz on its own merits and because few of the specifics have ever been confirmed beyond rumours and hearsay, but it’s still vital to the story of Antz and how the film turned out the way that it did so short-ish version. Jeffrey Katzenberg, typically cited as one of the figureheads of the Disney Renaissance of the 90s, left Disney in 1994 in a row with then-CEO Michael Eisner over his position in the company and set up DreamWorks Animation SKG with Steven Spielberg (the S) and David Geffen (the G) as a direct rival to Disney’s stranglehold of the animation landscape. In the first few years following that exit, Katzenberg kept in regular contact with many of the animators and principal staff at Disney and its associated studios because, hey, they may now be professional rivals but they’re all still friends! One of those whom Katzenberg remained in contact with was Pixar head honcho John Lasseter who let the former know about the idea for their big Toy Story follow-up in detail and long before it was announced to the trades.
To hear Lasseter tell it, Jeffrey stole the idea wholesale for himself as fuel in his war with Disney. To hear Katzenberg tell it, the idea for Antz actually originated from a failed Disney pitch in the late-80s called Army Ants that was related to him in (roughly) 1994 and became one of many rejected projects he tried to realise at his new studio, alongside a collaboration with cult British stop-motion gurus Aardman (they’d eventually make three pictures together) and a version of The Ten Commandments that was intended to be his studio’s first feature. That was until Disney scheduled A Bug’s Life to open the same weekend as what would become The Prince of Egypt (a film whose own anniversary we’ll cover next month). Production on Antz began before Disney scheduled A Bug’s Life and was intended to open in March of 99, but the Bug’s Life scheduling stuck in Katzenberg’s craw so heavily that he eventually pulled the release of Antz forward to six weeks ahead of Bug’s Life in a failed attempt to, quote Steve Jobs, “extort” Disney into backing off of Egypt’s intended release date, with unverified rumours of Pacific Data Images (the Californian studio actually producing the animation) being given cash incentives to finish the film in time for a pre-emptive strike against Disney-Pixar. The result caused bad blood between both studios that still hasn’t fully healed, and ended up moot anyway since Egypt was pushed to late December – important bonus info, all of this was also happening around the set-in-stone release date for Paramount’s feature adaptation of the mega-successful Rugrats on November 20th of that year – and still became the second non-Disney animated film to gross over $100 million domestic anyway, whilst Antz is a barely-remembered footnote of history.
And it’s a shame that any retrospective on Antz has to cover all of this because the competing films are only sort of similar. A Bug’s Life is a family film, it subscribes to the usual “be yourself” self-actualisation of many an animated kids’ film, and the societal oppression comes from an outside force (the grasshoppers). By contrast, Antz is aimed at teenagers and adults, explores the dehumanising effects of capitalism and mindless authoritarianism, and the societal oppression comes from within (the evil General Mandible). A Bug’s Life is light and inclusive in a way that keeps its subtext as more of a bonus for adults to acknowledge, whilst Antz is effectively a midlife crisis movie that places its subtext front and centre. It’s a film about feeling utterly insignificant within a larger society and trying in vain to find some kind of greater purpose in life, eventually coming to terms with that fact and returning with a new-found existentially-satisfied sense of self, a full fourteen years before Disney and Pixar would tackle such ideas in films like Wreck-It Ralph and Monsters University.
Part of that can be credited to the presence of Woody Allen – oh, hey, there’s another similarity between Antz and A Bug’s Life; both have major starring roles for now-disgraced alleged-sexual predators that make going back to their performances kind of really awkward. Allen plays the lead, Z a neurotic worker drone suffering from existential depression and who loudly voices that fact to anybody in earshot, although it’s more accurate to say that he’s playing a Woody Allen protagonist dropped into an animated movie. He (supposedly as it’s never been confirmed) did a whole bunch of uncredited rewrites on the screenplay – whose credited penmanship comes from Todd Alcott and Paul & Chris Weitz, the Weitz brothers going on to write and direct the first American Pie the following year – and you can really tell with how Z is balanced between being your typical Woody Allen character (he’s even introduced giving a rambling monologue to his therapist) and an almost Statler & Waldorf-style heckler of the types of action that could only happen in an animated feature. In certain respects, you can see the seeds being planted for Jerry Seinfeld’s similar work on DreamWorks’ secretly-parodic Bee Movie from 2007.
Those aren’t the only seeds for future DreamWorks templates that one can spot in Antz, though. The beginnings of the studio’s preference for licensed tracks backing important montages or character beats as opposed to original songs, a crucial artistic decision that clearly differentiated the works of DreamWorks from those made by Disney – Disney imitators were ten-a-penny at the time in look and feel which contributed to a misconception in the public, even if these films were vastly different in their underlying mechanics and narratives, that these were knock-offs – began here as Z and the Princess Bala bond to the peppy delights of “I Can See Clearly Now.” Celebrity stunt-casting in animation wasn’t anything new, Aladdin was only 1992, but Antz opens with a complete rundown of every big-name member of its cast before we hear a word from our protagonist or get a glimpse at his world, as if these names bring an air of respectability to proceedings (animation still being seen as lesser than live-action movies). Certain characters even look like their voice actors, most unnervingly Z’s best friend Weaver played by Sylvester Stallone, even though the film’s directors, Tim Johnson and Eric Darnell (DreamWorks lifers with the former still at the studio today), insist they’d finalised the designs before any role was cast.
Yet, Antz doesn’t feel entirely like the work of a studio that would soon go on to redefine (for better and worse) Western animated features for the next decade and maybe even longer. It’s darker than the vast majority of DreamWorks’ later filmography covering as it does worker’s rights; a potential communist uprising (even interpolating parts of Mario Savio’s “Operation of the Machine” speech into the worker ants’ rebellious dialogue); arranged marriages; social cleansing; and an entire detour involving multiple platoons of loyal soldier ants being sent to slaughter against a termite army that’s borderline bloody, reminiscent of Vietnam, and played dead straight. The sense of humour is very Allen-esque, mixing innuendo with existentialism, pun-work due to our protagonists being ants, and sparingly-deployed yet well-executed crudity, but the comedy disappears for long stretches at a time and doesn’t always aim for big obvious belly-laughs when it does arrive.
What Antz most resembles more than A Bug’s Life or any future DreamWorks project, then, is the rarely-seen Mature Animation – a title that’s incredibly condescending and inaccurate, I know, but it’s the best I can come up with. Animated features aimed at an older audience than the children these films are typically marketed to, but that don’t feel the need to take a South Park/Sausage Party approach of filling their movie to the brim with swearing and blood and other obvious naughty things. You don’t see them much because they inevitably fail at the box office thanks to the falsehood that “animation = children unless explicitly otherwise,” but it’s a lineage that includes Shane Acker’s gothic fantasy horror 9, Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical Persepolis, and the outputs of studios like Cartoon Saloon and especially Laika. Nowadays, these films are still rarities, so I can only imagine how radical a film like Antz must have been in the Disneyfied landscape of 1998 even without its status as the third feature-length computer-animated movie ever released. This is not to say that children wouldn’t enjoy Antz, but it’s a film wholly unconcerned with the idea that they wouldn’t be, aiming instead for the kind of audience that might catch a Woody Allen comedy or the mid-level grownup drama that used to a year-round occurrence (rather than nowadays where they’re relegated to Oscar season).
All this makes Antz an interesting little curio that’s worth digging back out if you haven’t seen it in a while. It’s not a great film, in all honesty – the writing is at times clunky, almost every non-Gene Hackman performance is stilted and unnatural, and its ambition often extends well past its reach – but it has aged rather well. The score by Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell is underrated, the animation that used to be state-of-the-art is now stiff and regimented but that’s an effect which works to the film’s benefit given that we’re talking about an ant colony and explorations of alienation and a fear of conformity, and many individual scenes (such as the termite ambush) are quite spectacular and daring in their own way. Mainly, though, Antz is still worth checking out because it’s still fundamentally unlike so many other animated features made back then, in the years since, and even today. Its older, more mature and off-beat tone, style and attitude is one I wish more animation studios would try since, unlike Shrek’s irreverent pop punk ideas of sticking it to The Mouse, this is an approach that won’t end up horribly dated within a decade.
Callie Petch has been filmed being ridiculous.