When Labor Day/Labour Day looms in these parts, we often have songs or films about labor - Metropolis springs to mind. But this year I thought we'd have a formicidal version of Fritz Lang's futuristic dystopia, because, in essence, in Metropolis men are reduced to ants - or antz. Antz came out exactly twenty years ago - 1997 - and, if you're curious about the spelling, Antz was presumably an attempt to appropriate for the insect world the street cred of rap. Even on casual acquaintance, one notices that the practitioners of gangsta rap display a strong penchant for our under-utilized 26th letter, as in, notably, the plural "muthaf**kerz". Spelling aside, just as I find it hard to distinguish one gangsta rapper from another, so too I find it hard to differentiate between ants: call me a bigot but they all look alike to me. Two decades ago Antz was only the second feature film — after Toy Story — to be wholly computer animated. It was visually thrilling, with dizzying lurches in perspective and spectacular depth in the endless gloomy tunnels of its subterranean colony, but its computers were unable to solve the problem of the ants themselves. There's one model for a soldier ant, one for a worker ant, and that's about it.
That, of course, is partly the point: an ant colony is a society in which individualism is deeply suppressed - which is a theme of the movie. But it presents a basic difficulty in telling the story, one which DreamWorks decided to solve by stellar voicing: there's a Woody Allen ant, a Sylvester Stallone ant, Sharon Stone and Jennifer Lopez ants, Gene Hackman and Dan Aykroyd ants, and so on and on. To be honest, aside from Woody and Sly, it doesn't much help matters, serving only to remind us how few signature voices there are these days: Jane Curtin is no Bette Davis, nor Danny Glover Edward G Robinson.
But Woody and Sly are enough. Antz was their first cinematic encounter since young Stallone played a bozo straphanger in Allen's Bananas back in 1971. A quarter-century later, Sly and Woody are insect buddies, one a musclebound soldier ant called Weaver, the other a schlemiel of a worker ant called Z. Sly gives an utterly charming performance and, as a bug, Woody is considerably less creepy than he is as a human. being. Obsessed for once with the vicissitudes of formication rather than fornication, Allen is not otherwise greatly changed from his live-action persona: Antz opens with Z on the couch of the ant-colony shrink, recalling the problems of being "the middle child in a family of five million". "My father was basically a drone and he flew away when I was just a larva," he whines. But his hour on the sofa is up, and now it's time to return to working on the colony's massive mega-tunnel project. "I'm supposed to do everything for the colony?" complains Z. "What about my needs?"
But Z's world is about to change. Princess Bala (Sharon Stone) is bored by her stiff of a fiancé, General Mandible (Gene Hackman), and decides to check out the action at the local bar. As the band strikes up "Guantanamera", Bala asks Z to dance and they take to the floor: in an interesting evolution of Sir Roger Scruton's famous thesis on the social implications of various dance styles, Bala and Z break free of the mechanical formation of their fellow ants and, like Fred and Ginger intruding on a Nuremberg rally, begin to express themselves as terpsichorean individuals.
Z is so smitten by Bala that the following morning, in order to get another glimpse of her, he persuades Weaver to swap with him and let him take his pal's place in the soldiers' big parade. Thus the marvels of computer animation - the only medium in which Woody Allen can get away with pretending to be Sylvester Stallone, and the then forty-year-old Sharon Stone can get away with being Woody's love interest (in his own films, she'd be playing his girlfriend's grandmother).
Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson direct with immense panache and Todd Alcott's script is drolly Woodyesque (Z on why he doesn't go for female worker ants: "They're career girls. They're obsessed with digging"). General Mandible mimics the heroic stance of General Patton; the disgruntled workers sing modified John Lennon: "All we are saying is/Give Z a chance." Only when it comes to the deeper implications of the picture's quaint idealism do the film-makers falter. Z finds himself accidentally conscripted into a war with the termites and afterwards, on a battlefield piled high with corpses, his dying friend Barbados tells him, "Don't make my mistake, kid. Don't follow orders your whole life. Think for yourself."
So Z determines to "get in touch with my inner maggot", sets out in search of the above-ground Insectopia, and, in so doing, precipitates a revolution among General Mandible's soldiers and workers — a very literal military-industrial complex. No longer are the ants prepared to accept their colonial classifications.
Even twenty years ago it wasn't quite as simple as that: The left hailed community and berated Mrs Thatcher for sneering that there's no such thing as society and President Reagan for unleashing a selfish world of self-interested individuals. A leftist parable about the dangers of collectivism was a bit unlikely even in 1997 when the left was already insisting on the classification of individual citizens as members of societal sub-groups — gay, black, female, differently abled. Two decades later, in a world organized by the algorithms of Google and Facebook, our colonies are as stratified as the ants' - transgender, Muslim, non-binary - with which designation come a supposedly rigid set of attitudes and behaviors.
Ah, well: Antz is only a cartoon. And, intentionally or not, it makes some good points, including a rather profound one: When Z and Princess Bala eventually reach their socialist utopia, it turns out to be a giant garbage dump.
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