Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Antz (1998)

Then Seen first at the Odeon on London Road, on screen one, just after the refurbishment I think, when it went from five to ten auditoriums. Antz is usually considered a failure and a poor cousin to both PiXAR and Dreamworks’s later releases (and missing from the usual showreel they put on new discs which does have Bee Season of all things), but it reached the number one slot on the week of release in the UK. It’s available for £3 from Amazon at the moment on DVD, though I’ll warn you that it’s not a brilliant transfer; these days digimations tend to be sent to disc direct from the source code whereas Antz looks like it was copied over from a non-HD source in the traditional way, the smeary transfer not doing justice to the crowd scenes.

Now Here is what Woody Allen told the New York Daily News on the subject of Antz:
“That was hilarious. I was having a drink with Jeff Katzenberg and he said I was the voice he needed for an ant. I've never seen "Antz," but it made more money than my last five pictures put together. I wish it was mine.”
Well, of course you haven’t (or hadn’t – this was over ten years ago) and of course you do. Antz is of course notorious because it was part of Katzenberg’s revenge strategy when he left Disney – to produce a superior film about the social insects before they could distribute A Bug’s Life. He succeeded on both counts – Antz turned up a month earlier and unlike the PiXAR film (which is mainly a bunch of film parodies wrapped around a quest structure – meaow etc.) is thematically fairly complex. As the wikipedia sums up better than I could without simply plagiarising them without attribution:
“The film explores aspects of individualism and collectivism and shows the transition of the colony from a dictatorship to a more-or-less traditional monarchy combined with a constitutional republic.”
The hiring of Woody to play Z, the hero ant is the key difference and gives the film a different tone. Four writers are credited on the screenplay: Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz, Todd Alcott and Chris Miller but the character’s asides are pure Woody as is the opening and best scene in which Z is introduced talking about how insignificant he feels within the colony and about his childhood. The directors were originally going to begin the film with the shot flying through the colony, but they understood that Woody was their greatest asset and decided to put him front and centre.

With digimation still in its relative infancy, it’s startling to see Woody’s gesticulations being mimicked so successfully through an ant who looks nothing like him (although some concept art on the wall behind one of the animators in the making of documentary has a grotesque design in which Woody’s hair, cloth hat and glasses are superimposed on an ant). The animators had footage of Woody in the sound recording booth, but mostly took their cues from the films themselves for the and body movements designing new software to govern the facial expressions.

The scene in which Z is being jostled about by his fellow workers and army ants walking in formation mimics a similar scene in Love & Death and there’s certainly something of the interactions between him and Diane Keaton from Sleeper in the moments when Z and Princess Bala are on the road to Insectopia. But it’s important note that although some of the shots resemble some of the earlier funny ones as does Z’s characterisation with the exception of that opening scene this is nothing much like a “Woody Allen” film.

It’s still a fairly traditional bit of Dreamworks digimation, with a slightly more adult age group in mind. Z jokes about erotic thoughts at one point, there’s torture, characters die horrifically and some of the battle scenes between the ants and termites have Starship Trooper levels of violence. But it’s still an action adventure film, with pretty montage sequence and romance. There are no interesting structural elements, it's not revealed that the ants are manifestations of a New Yorker’s psyche and there’s editing within scenes. This isn’t another David Frankel attempt at mimicry.

Some casting trivia: Nearly all of the main voice cast had appeared (or would later appear) in one of Woody’s films. Sharon Stone was the girl on the train in Stardust Memories and Sylvester Stallone was the hoodlum on the train in Bananas. Plus, there’s Another Woman’s Gene Hackman and Annie Hall’s Christopher Walken. Dan Aykroyd would later turn up in Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Jennifer Lopez hasn’t appeared yet, but given the rapidity of Woody’s releases, it can only be a matter of time.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:14 pm

    Antz was much better than A Bug's Life, a stupid kiddie movie. The only reason peolpe forgot about Antz is because Disney have huge marketing power to promote their older films. You can walk into any store and still buy A Bug's Life toys or merchandise. It was the sillier movie, and the voice cast in Antz was steller!!