Antz vs. A Bugs Life
In 1998 we watched a story about a neurotic ant whose efforts to win the heart of the colony land him in deep trouble, but in the end he not only wins the heart of the princess, but saves the whole colony during a dramatic and very watery grand finale!
And then we watched it again.
This may very well be the best showdown between Disney Pixar and Dreamworks. A Bugs Life followed Toy Story as their second step on their way to dominance in the CGI market, but for Dreamworks Antz was only the start of a road that saw mild success until Shrek really threw down the gauntlet. Now, so far as the box office goes there was one very clear winner, but so far as the better film goes, things get a little more interesting.
A Bugs Life
This rather stretches the Aesop’s Fable of the ant and the grasshopper and mixes in Three Amigos. A brutish band of grasshoppers led by Kevin Spacey bully an anthill into serving them food before they’re allowed to gather for themselves. After Dave Foley‘s Flik destroys the offering, he’s banished on the pretence of finding heroes to save the colony, which he inadvertently does.
It’s an all star cast that a careful ear can pick out long before resorting to IMDb, and comes packaged with Disney Pixar’s classic battery of reference comedy (much of which is for the grownups in the audience) plenty of slapstick for the kids, and bright colours, excitement, and enjoyment that’ll last for years to come. Even the animation is good enough quality that it’s still a fun watch today, and while these days we can spot the flaws a mile off it doesn’t detract from a good story, quality characters, and all in all a decent film.
But there are elements that have not aged well, and some of the writing that does not withstand the relentless march of time. Very early we’re subjected to some seriously clunky exposition, and when we reach the city the insect jokes are pretty rough, and ladled on so thick that as a kid I certainly never noticed them: “Hair of the dog you bit” and “Bloody Mary, O positive” casual alcoholism jokes that wouldn’t go down in a film rated universal these days, not that kids are likely to spot them anyway. “Hey waiter, I’m in my soup”? C’mon guys, that’s just badly formed, you’re better than that.
But I’m a sucker for a good villain, and that’s what we have in Spacey’s Hopper, especially backed by the motorcycle gang parody and his tame killer, Thumper. Baby brother and idiot, Molt (played by Richard Kind) puts it best when he says “He’s quite the motivational speaker, isn’he?” when Hopper outlines the real reason why grasshoppers have to keep ants down, brutally crushing three of his goons in the process.
This is basically a Woody Allen movie, and Z, our ant with existential problems, is basically just teeny-tiny Woody Allen. Z is a worker unsatisfied with his lot in life, constantly moaning to his friend Weaver (Sylvester Stallone in one of his more comprehendible roles) when a veteran soldier tells him all about the promised land, Insectopia. That same night Princess Bala (Sharon Stone), stifled by life in the palace, comes out looking for some fun, and predictably mistakes our hero for fun, leading to a whirlwind adventure involving kidnap, class warfare, and near genocide.
I can see why Antz was not the enduring film, it didn’t get the marketing, ran on half the budget and has the animation to show for it. The appeal to children may be lost in a very dark setting with plain brown ants, a torture scene, and honest to gods death, brutal, horrifying death. The pro-communist storyline might have irked a large slice of the American audience, especially in the late 90’s when the Cold War was not all that cold just yet, a scene depicting the whispering of the disgruntled masses actually hears a worker say “It’s the workers who control the means of production.”
But as a film in general? Wow!
The termite war, an incredible pastiche of Starship Troopers, and ending in one of the most harrowing deaths of an animated character I’ve ever seen! The voice acting, writing and comedy are all superior in Antz, and overall it gives a much better vision of an ants lot in life: the bloated queen spawning countless larvae, the strict caste system decided at birth, and the incredible ability of workers to cooperate and create impressive structures, and let’s not forget that in Antz they all have six legs against Pixar’s four.
So far as appeal for kids, there’s plenty of jokes and comedy moments, plus some real excitement between the war, the shoe-ride and the climactic final scene, but Antz richly deserves it’s PG rating, as the violence and (mild) swearing might give parents pause for thought, but as an adult who watched this film as a child I find I’m richly rewarded upon rewatch.
For the Disney fans, there’s clearly no contest, A Bug’s Life is the better film visually and if the bad jokes are for you then enjoy by all means, and as a fan of a good baddie even I find myself torn (with apologies to General Mandible) but in terms of which film is better? Sat here and now I have to say Antz was takes it, despite a couple of rather poor lines, the rest of the script was a masterwork aided by the talents of the cast and underfunded animators. Apparently Christopher Walken‘s performance changed a drastic proportion of the film, and Stallone even offered to work for free.
That said, if A Bug’s Life got a long overdue sequel I’d still be happier to see it than a sequel to Antz. Antz may have launched a glorious back-catalogue of Dreamworks animations for us, including Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon, Pixar’s performance is consistently excellent, and we can forgive Cars 2 when confronted with Shark Tale and Bee Movie.
In short, Antz wins the battle, Pixar wins the war. And if you’d like to know more about how this whole situation came about, check this video that goes a bit of depth about the film industry side of the matter.