Antz

Antz isn’t anything great, or even especially memorable, but it’s a reasonable afternoon diversion — which is its chief charm. The fledgling studio DreamWorks has dabbled in kiddie fare before (MouseHunt, Small Soldiers), but this is its first feature-length foray into animation. Not only that, it’s the first fully computer-animated ‘toon since Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story. All things considered, I prefer Antz. It has no sappy show tunes (the closest it comes is a montage set to “I Can See Clearly Now”), a minimum of gush, and a surplus of anti-establishment wit. And it doesn’t overwhelm you or try too hard; it’s as light and brisk as a spring breeze.

Disney is big on “Be yourself” as a theme, but Antz advances a more relevant message: “Think for yourself.” The movie unfolds within a teeming ant colony, divided into soldiers and workers — it’s a vision of a society as a military-industrial complex that would keep Oliver Stone ranting for years. We meet one worker ant, Z (voice by Woody Allen), who’s tired of his predetermined role in life. He’s sure there has to be something more, and he hears intriguing things about a far-off idyll called Insectopia. He finds his soulmate in the Queen Ant’s daughter Princess Bala (Sharon Stone), who’s sick of her life — she’s to be married to the brutish General Mandible (Gene Hackman), a warmonger with vaguely genocidal plans.

To adults, there’s nothing terribly original in the plot (which follows Z and Bala to Insectopia and their struggle against Mandible), though it’s fair to say that it’s new to newcomers — i.e., kids. Will children be mystified by the often-sophisticated dialogue (by Todd Alcott, Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz)? Possibly, but there’s more than enough else to hold their interest, including a couple of set pieces (one involving a pair of giant sneakered feet, another concerning a drop of water) that define “ingenuity.” At its best, Antz appeals to your daydreams when you were a kid and you wondered about the daily physical hassles of an ant. (Well, I did, anyway.)

Antz takes place in an enclosed computer-generated world, like Toy Story, yet I didn’t feel cramped and confined in this ant world, as I did in the hermetic, almost-real-but-not-quite universe of Buzz and Woody. Antz is actually closer to James and the Giant Peach, and the visuals, ironically enough, feel large-scale. When we pull back, what seems like miles of ant tunnels is really only inches in diameter. I would’ve liked to see a little more interaction between ants and humans — maybe a scene with millions of frenzied soldiers waging war on a candy bar on the sidewalk, or a decree from General Mandible that all deserters will be sent to the ant farm.

Adults will get a kick out of the voices, too. Woody successfully reinvents himself in the sort of uncomplicated revenge-of-the-nerd role he hasn’t enjoyed in a while; Sharon Stone displays the humor you always find in her interviews but rarely in her movies; Jennifer Lopez’s fans will find further proof that she sounds as alluring as she looks; Sylvester Stallone and (briefly) Danny Glover are amusing as soldier ants; Gene Hackman reworks several of his rabid military bad-guys.

Then there’s Christopher Walken, whose character — Mandible’s second-in-command Cutter — even looks like him. This is Walken’s second go-round in a DreamWorks kiddie movie (he also brightened MouseHunt), and he’s even funnier in these movies than he is in his usual black-clad, vampire-from-the-planet-of-bad-hair roles. Everywhere else, he’s typecast, hired for his voice and somber visage; DreamWorks may have found the perfect home for this often-imitated, never-duplicated actor, who clearly has a ball playing wacky roles no one else will let him do. And so far, the studio is batting three for three with their kiddie division, hiring hipster actors like Walken and Tommy Lee Jones and letting them play. Whereas Toy Story employed who? Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. I rest my case.

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