directed by Eric Darnell, Tim
Johnson and Lawrence Guterman
(DreamWorks, 1998)

Fielding Mellish is back.

The neurotic New Yorker made famous by Woody Allen in 1971's revolutionary comedy Bananas has returned to the screen, older but no wiser and with a couple of extra pairs of legs. The age doesn't show, because Allen is providing only the voice and personality for an animated character, but the legs do because he's an ant -- an ant in love.

Fielding -- who this time goes by the name Z-4195, or Z for short -- is in love with Princess Bala, and what male ant wouldn't be. She has six great legs, a sense of adventure and the voice of Sharon Stone. Unfortunately for Z, Princess Bala is engaged to General Mandible, leader of the soldier ants, an officer but no gentleman with some very specific but not-well-advertised plans for "improving" the colony.

Most of that colony, Z included, spends all its time working on the Megatunnel project, and that's where Z's troubles start. He's unhappy with his career as a soil relocation engineer, but ant colonies don't offer many opportunities for lateral moves, much less advancement. And so begins his search for the fabled "Insectopia," a land of muck and garbage, where, according to one old-timer, "the streets are lined with food."

Antz opens with a lawnscape that bears an uncanny resemblance to the New York skyline. Subtle it's not, but it beats cluttering the screen with big letters that say "This is an allegory."

The theme is laid out in the first few seconds as Z explains to his analyst (Paul Mazursky) that, as the middle child in a family of 5,000, he feels totally insignificant. It's magnified a few scenes later in a working-class bar, where Z tells his best friend, Weaver (Sylvester Stallone), how much he envies him his life as a soldier: "You meet interesting insects and you get to kill them," he notes.

The plot of Antz is a mixed bag -- part 1984, part It Happened One Night. It doesn't take much imagination to see that Z and Bala are going to become the antagonistic couple whose long trek brings them closer together -- or that they'll have to address the repressive nature of their society to find happiness either individually or as a pair.

The story works best when it's most ironic: Z becoming a hero by surviving a suicide mission he wasn't supposed to be on.

As in all good ironic works, however, every silver lining gets twisted into a dark cloud. And for Z, when it rains, it pours. His hero's reception brings him back into Bala's arms and Mandible's clutches, and Insectopia starts to look more like a necessity than a dream.

But plot is only one element of Antz, and not always its most impressive. There's the concept itself, and the computer animation, which is both seamless and menacing. Then, too there are some very funny setpieces, the best of which involves a couple hundred worker ants swilling aphid beer and line dancing to "Guantanamera."

The characters are just as effective, particularly Mandible, a plutocrat who makes Stalin look like a social worker; clearly, DreamWorks is out to out-Disney Disney on this villain.

Even the casting is brilliant -- how many live-action filmmakers would think of pairing Allen and Stallone? Yet that's exactly what DreamWorks has done, and the two are a natural.

Antz is no Toy Story -- how many films are? But clearly it establishes DreamWorks as a key player in the animated film market. And its efforts to put character and story on an equal footing with special effects suggest the studio has its heart and its brains in the right place.

Lots of films spawn sequels. Few deserve them more than Antz. These guys are just too much fun to let go of.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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