by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
On October 12th, DreamWorks Animation SKG turns 20. Long known as the number two CG animation company in terms of both quality and gross per film, the company has been responsible for, along with Pixar, revolutionising and revitalising American feature-length animated cinema. And they turn 20 having finally earned sustained critical praise in addition to the usual millions upon millions from franchising and the box office (*quietly shuffles Turbo and Mr. Peabody & Sherman out of view*). The company, in many respects, is stronger than it has ever looked.
I was a child once and, being a child, I used to be a fan of DreamWorks Animation. I mean, like everybody, I was enamoured by Shrek and, being young and therefore incapable of good taste, I ate up their continual, lesser re-treads of the Shrek formula. However, even children eventually develop taste and my patience with their products was waning by Flushed Away (yes, I know Flushed Away is an Aardman film, we’ll get to why I didn’t make that distinction later) and had evaporated entirely by Bee Movie. I found their films to be stale, formulaic, uninspired, lacking in heart, and vastly inferior to what Pixar were putting out. So, after Kung Fu Panda (which did not work for me, we’ll see if anything’s changed later on), I made the decision to stop going to see DreamWorks films. After all, why should I keep going to those when Pixar were still riding high?
I held firm to that decision for close to six years (with one lapse for Puss In Boots because a friend and I had free cinema tickets that were about to run out and nothing else was on), finally breaking it this year due to my desire to see all the animation and because proper film critics can’t pick and choose the films they review. Consequently, Mr. Peabody & Sherman was a big surprise for me, being a legitimately great and heartfelt film. Was this seriously the company that, exactly one decade earlier, believed that Shark Tale was quality work it was willing to stand behind and release to the general public? And whilst I may not have loved How To Train Your Dragon or its sequel, I can still see them as very good movies and a major step-up from, say, Madagascar.
So this journey back through their back catalogue has been rather a long time coming and the 20th anniversary of the company (which I didn’t know was a thing until the card popped up before How To Train Your Dragon 2) seemed like as good a time as any to start it. So, every Monday for the next 30 weeks, I will be going through every single one of DreamWorks Animation’s films (up to 2013) and giving them a thorough re-evaluation. How they were responded to at the time, what the animation landscape at the time was like to foster their success or failure, how they’ve aged and if they were good films to begin with. We’re going to go through them all, from their debutback in 1998, all the way up to Turbo in late 2013 with a week’s break for their one excursion into direct-to-video land, in the shape of Joseph: King Of Dreams, and two weeks at some point or another to look at their television output, seeing as franchising is a major part of the DreamWorks business. There will be some highs, some astounding lows, maybe even some surprises and, hopefully, we’ll all come out of this a little more knowledgeable about one of the biggest names in Western Animation.
But we start our adventure on October 2nd 1998 with the company’s first animated feature-length film, Antz. Yes, with a “z”.
01] Antz (2nd October 1998)
Budget: $105 million
Worldwide Gross: $171,757,863
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95% from 89 reviews
I am not going to spend the majority of this instalment focussing on the feud between DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg and Pixar’s Steve Jobs & John Lasseter over whether or not the former stole the premise for A Bug’s Life from the latter and used it as the basis for Antz. Why? Multiple reasons. 1) The situation is actually rather complex and neither side, to this day even, seems willing to let it slide or come out and admit they were wrong. You could write a book around the thing (or, at the very least, a novella) and I don’t have the time to go in-depth about the issue. 2) To spend 75% of the article’s length on circumstances surrounding its creation is to do a disservice to Antz itself as 3] With the exception of their general premises (lowly worker ants who have crushes on their colony’s princess and have fears of being insignificant in their daily lives and roles in society), Antz and A Bug’s Life actually have very little in common.
In any case, it is important information, so here is the condensed, likely-heavily-simplified version. DreamWorks Animation CEO and co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg helped form the company after leaving Disney’s film division disillusioned by its direction and embroiled in a bitter feud with the company’s CEO Michael Eisner (and, really, who wasn’t angry with Eisner at some point in time?). Katzenberg had stayed in touch with Lasseter after leaving and, when asked by Katzenberg during one of these meet-ups, Lasseter had described in detail their post-Toy Story project, A Bug’s Life. Soon after, and soon after DreamWorks had acquired Pacific Data Images (PDI, the company responsible for the 3D sections of the Homer³ segment of The Simpsons’ “Treehouse Of Horror VI”), trade publications announced that DreamWorks’ first animated film was going to be Antz. Lasseter, naturally, assumed that Katzenberg had ripped him off. Katzenberg insisted that it was based on a 1991 story pitch by Tim Johnson that was related to him in 1994. The situation was not helped by DreamWorks rushing production on the film and aiming for a release date two months before A Bug’s Life. There’s also the fact that Katzenberg made an offer to an infuriated Steve Jobs that he would halt production on Antz if Pixar moved the release date for A Bug’s Life away from DreamWorks’ planned debut animated feature, The Prince Of Egypt (more on that next week); yes, that does sound an awful lot like a shake-down.
Lasseter still believes that Katzenberg ripped him off. Katzenberg still insists that they were merely similar ideas. (For the record, I would have been more inclined to believe Lasseter if you’d asked me about this before I saw the film and before this got out.) In any case, Antz did end up launching nearly two months before A Bug’s Life to great critical and relatively good financial success. A Bug’s Life, however, would debut on November 25th to near equal critical acclaim and runaway financial success ($363 million). Not to mention the fact that that’s still held up as a very strong entry into Pixar’s canon, despite the strength of what’s come after, whilst Antz has pretty much faded into obscurity. And then, to add insult to injury, The Prince Of Egypt was released a few weeks later, December 18th, and even with the competition from A Bug’s Life it managed to find great success, becoming only the second animated film not released by Disney to make $100 million domestic (after Paramount and Nickelodeon’s The Rugrats Movie) and the highest grossing traditionally animated non-Disney film ever until The Simpsons Movie came along. Business may have gotten Antz out of the door first, but all it ended up doing was destroying long-held friendships and saddling the film with baggage, that may or may not be true, for the rest of its life when it’s brought up in conversation.
And that’s really a damn shame as, as previously mentioned, Antz and A Bug’s Life share an overall premise and precious little else. Not to mention the fact that Antz has enough going on in its own terms that you can be able to discuss the film without having to make reference to the troubles surrounding its production. So, if you want to know more about that side of proceedings, you can find an overall summary and several jumping-off points here and here. The rest of this little piece is going to look at Antz primarily on its own terms.
Whereas A Bug’s Life was clearly aimed at the whole family and especially the younger end, Antz was aimed more at teenagers and adults. Not that you’d know that from the trailer, of course (in fact, compare that trailer with the one for A Bug’s Life). A Bug’s Life is focussed more on sight gags, slapstick humour and a light inclusive tone; Antz derives what little humour it has from the ramblings and snarkings of its neurotic protagonist, Z (voiced by Woody Allen, who also did some uncredited re-writes), and has a tone more befitting a high PG, low PG-13 family film (more specifically, my mind keeps cycling back to Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers, which was released two months earlier). A Bug’s Life is a tale of slaves rising up and overthrowing their oppressors but the subtext is kept as subtext and the tone is light and inclusive, whilst Antz is a darker film that tackles the topics of individualism, rigid class structures, Communism (briefly) and blindly following orders, all with the subtlety of baseball bat. To the face. Of your grandmother. At one point, the villain (voiced by Gene Hackman) almost quite literally sneers about how individualism is a disease held only by the weak. Both films are clearly aiming at different audiences and are using their similar premises to do different things and tackle different aspects of them, they just had the misfortune of coming out two months apart from one another; not the last time that DreamWorks would fall victim to this (Megamind/Despicable Me, but we shall get to that).
A phrase that commonly gets tossed around in regards to Antz is “edge”. That it has “edge,” “it’s edgier than A Bug’s Life.” I get the feeling that that particular phrase is only used because everybody came to the film expecting a safe, kid-friendly romp. Like it or not, animation has an image problem with people mistakenly believing that all animation is aimed only at kids because that’s the primary market that Disney were aiming at. So with a film like Antz, which carries itself more like a live-action comedy adventure than a Disney film, people are going to label it edgy. In reality, Antz plays with themes and topics that aren’t that alien from Disney films (Z’s narrative arc, which ends with him pretty much back where he started but happy about accepting it because he got to choose, is rather close to one that Ralph goes through in 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph) but just flowers it up. Characters infrequently swear, for example. Not majorly so, but hearing “bitching” and “crap” and “hell” is still jarring from a Western medium that goes to great pains to keep people from uttering a single bad word. Z himself is basically a Woody Allen character dropped into an adventure movie; the guy is literally introduced ranting to his therapist about his insecurities and neuroses! One of his lines later on in the film is a slightly altered line from Allen’s own Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid To Ask). There’s also a genuinely frightening and disturbing war scene which is followed by a haunting aftermath and a prolonged sequence in which Z has to help comfort his dying and bodiless friend. You know, just in case you believed that Mulan wasn’t at all held back by its G-rating and all-ages focus. It could come off as a company desperately trying to break away from that image problem, and seem cringeworthy and forced with conflicting tones, but it’s a testament to the film’s quality that it all feels natural. There are very few first film jitters, here, it’s a film that knows what it wants to be and rarely second-guesses itself.
Those first film jitters manifest themselves elsewhere, instead. Subtlety is not Antz’s strong suit. Everybody constantly re-iterates how their decisions and lifestyles are for the good of the colony, at such a frequent rate that it starts to cross over into Hot Fuzz-style parody. The eeeeevil General Mandible goes on at length about his dissatisfaction with worker ants, stating them to be inferior to the physically superior soldier ants and how “only the strong survive” and build a purer ant colony and such. Z’s love interest, Princess Bala (voiced stiffly by Sharon Stone), wishes to see how the common folk live but is ill-prepared once she is thrown out into the real world and resorts to complaining incessantly until she sees the true beauty of a lower-class life. A subplot involving a budding romance between Z’s soldier ant friend, Corporal Weaver (Sylvester Stallone), and worker workmate, Azteca (Jennifer Lopez, yes, really), is exploited during a short torture sequence by the villains who look down on it as an abomination in a way that recalls to mind bigots’ reactions to mixed-race couples. That last one is the most subtly handled of the film’s various themes. I understand the need to ensure that you get your message across on certain touchier topics, and that subtext can often fly over the heads of children (that slavery/A Bug’s Life comparison is one that came to mind pretty much as I was typing it), but it feels overly-preachy at times, here, and amateurishly-handled; the result of first-time writers and directors not quite getting there, yet, in regards to handling weightier material (which was the case for first-time feature-length directors Tim Johnson and Eric Darnell who we will be frequently coming back to throughout this series).
Animation-wise, the film has aged better than one might think. In terms of raw power and art design, it’s about on a par with the CG used to power the opening to Tekken Tag Tournament for the PS2, but that actually winds up being an advantage. Early on, the film needs to get across to the viewer how Z sees his colony, a strict, regimented and personality-free hive-mind where everyone does the same thing in the same way at the same time. The animation responds to this challenge by being mechanical, limited and relatively lifeless. Every character moves about like they’re strapped onto a conveyer belt waiting for the next stop to be fussed with, which is almost exactly what happens in one scene where the ant queen is being presented with new-borns by a quite literally endless procession of ants. A dance sequence mines a good laugh out of the mundane half-assery by everyone involved and has a spark of life injected when, in the centre of the image, Z and Bala decide to go against the grain. It all works and, consequently, appears much less dated than practically all of the films that came out during the great CG boom of the early 2000s; except when the action really ratchets up, whereupon the stiff animation couples with a noticeable drop in quality to reveal that the film is nearly old enough to buy a lottery ticket.
One other thing about Antz that I found notable comes not 20 seconds in. The first thing you see, before the main character, before an establishing shot, before even the title card, is a list of practically every single cast member in the movie, in alphabetical order by their surname. Now, of course, casting famous actors in voice roles instead of professional voice actors was nothing new by this point, and neither was marketing an animated film based on having a big star voicing one of your characters (Aladdin was only 1992, after all). However, animated films still resisted boasting their all-star casts up front; Toy Story opened with its playtime prologue before rolling the opening credits whilst Disney would credit the character’s primary animator before listing its voice actor. The choice feels conscious, a way to try and draw legitimacy to the project as if, even though it’s an animated film and therefore inherently inferior, Antz is still as respectable as a live-action film. That’s how it reads to me, anyhow, regardless of how much I may disagree with the sentiments, and it’s an interesting creative choice that foreshadows just how far down the big name stunt casting rabbit hole DreamWorks would later fall.
You know, I’m actually rather disappointed that Antz seems to have slid into relative obscurity. Sure, it’s nothing outstanding or great or anything, but it’s definitely unique. It’s one of those rare animated films that’s primarily made for a specific audience, with said specific audience being older than 11, and that wants to try explicitly tackling weightier topics. It doesn’t fully work, its handling of its messaging and themes is not exactly deft and its central romance is the definition of undercooked, but it tries. It’s a trier and it’s also good enough at the fundamentals to be an entertaining and good quality film divorced from that potential. I feel that it deserves a better reputation than it has, a film that’s only trotted out as a historical landmark (it’s the third computer-animated feature-length film released, in addition to being DreamWorks’ debut animated film) or for its tumultuous production history and little more, although I suspect I may be frequently referring to this film in regards to various DreamWorks tropes later on in this series. The company would be wise to re-issue it on Blu-Ray or, at the very least, refer to it in public every now and again. I get why they wouldn’t, but it would certainly help with regards to giving it a fairer re-evaluation by the animation community and the general public at large, because it’s much better than I’ve seen people give it credit for.
A financial success upon release, Antz has fallen off of most people’s maps since then, much like most other CG-animated films that emerged once Toy Story changed the game forever (hey, who remembers Disney’s 39th animated classic, Dinosaur? …anybody? …is it seriously just me?) and it immediately set Pixar and DreamWorks up as bitter rivals at the cost of personal friendships. On the plus side, it still turned a profit, was slightly more of a critical success than A Bug’s Life and has aged far better than one might have expected. Overall, it was a fine debut for DreamWorks Animation. It wouldn’t be until their next film, though, that the company would taste real success. That film was 1998’s The Prince Of Egypt and we shall talk about that next week.
A brand new “DreamWorks! A Retrospective” will be posted every Monday at 1PM BST here on Failed Critics.
Callum Petch considers fun – natural fun! Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!