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The Prince Of Egypt

prince_of_egypt_ver3by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation turns 20.  In celebration, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full on retrospective treatment.

02] The Prince Of Egypt (18th December 1998)

Budget: $70 million

Gross: $218,613,188

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 79%

1998 was a damn good year for animation.  Pixar finally completed work on and released their follow-up to Toy Story in the form of A Bug’s Life, Disney turned in the best of their direct-to-video sequels in the shape of The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, DreamWorks’ debut animated feature Antz was a successful and unique opening statement, whilst Paramount and Nickelodeon finally brought Rugrats to the big screen to enormous success, and, of course, let us not forget that 1998 was the year that Disney gave us Mulan.  1999 would end up topping it (to a degree and with worrying signs that we will touch on next week), but there is no denying the excellency of 1998’s line-up.  For the most part (shuffles Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer The Movie off-stage).  And then, just as the year was wrapping up, DreamWorks dropped one last entry into the absurdly strong animated canon of 1998: The Prince Of Egypt.

You’ll recall from last week that this was supposed to be DreamWorks’ grand entrance into the animation landscape but was ultimately supplanted by Antz thanks to the competitive desires of DreamWorks’ CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg.  You may also recall that A Bug’s Life ended up opening on November the 25th of 1998, which is what Katzenberg was so terrified of, the possibility that A Bug’s Life may end up crushing The Prince Of Egypt at the box office.  Except that it didn’t work out like that.  Opening three weeks after A Bug’s Life, The Prince Of Egypt took a lucrative pre-Christmas release slot and still opened late enough for A Bug’s Life to have sufficiently worn out its box office welcome (it, after all, is very rare for animated film to continue to be very strong performers a month after release and with other options available).  The film opened at number 2, behind You’ve Got Mail (in case you wanted a reminder of just how close to the Millennium we are), but had staying power, actually making more money over the notoriously slow Christmas weekend, dropping rather steadily week-to-week and earning plenty of money during the week, too.  (Check the facts for yourself, here.)

The film was also a strong performer overseas, doubling its domestic American gross, and eventually closed as the highest grossing non-Disney animated film of all-time (until Chicken Run two years later, but we’ll get to that) and the highest grossing traditionally-animated non-Disney film of all-time (until The Simpsons Movie in 2007, which makes this the far more impressive of the two statistics).  But it didn’t stop there, as The Prince Of Egypt wound up scoring something that A Bug’s Life did not, an Academy Award.  Yes, of the studio’s fifteen nominations and three wins, The Prince Of Egypt was responsible for two, Best Original Score Musical Or Comedy (which it lost to Shakespeare In Love because the 1991 Academy Awards, everybody) and Best Original Song (which it won, and was a category that is conspicuously lacking in Mulan, but I digress).  So, yeah, I think it is fair to say that The Prince Of Egypt more than held its own against the raring up of the Pixar juggernaut (although, fun little fact, both would fail to take the 1999 Annie Award for Best Film; that went to The Iron Giant).

Besides, this continual competition that Katzenberg feared that A Bug’s Life would bring was rather moot from the very beginning because, much like with Antz, both films were both doing different things.  Only this time, the similarities only came down to the fact that they were both animated movies coming out around the holidays.  That’s the sole thing both films have in common, but that’s apparently all they needed to become fierce rivals battling for the public’s attention.  Such fears are especially baffling because The Prince Of Egypt is a biblical epic told via the medium of an animated musical.  And it’s not like the public could be in any way confused by the targeted audience of either film; compare the trailer for A Bug’s Life with the trailer for The Prince Of Egypt.

Of course, the true test facing The Prince Of Egypt was the fact that it was a traditionally animated film by a company that was not Disney.  Once upon a time, such a market thrived (hello, Don Bluth) but a whole bunch of middling, at best, animated films (Cats Don’t Dance, The Swan Princess, Once Upon A Forest, Quest For Camelot among many, many others) spoilt such a thing, making Disney pretty much the only consistently strong performer of animated goods, and therefore the only one worth putting down money for.  The fact that most films were trying to emulate the Disney style of storytelling, and ended up doing so really rather poorly, didn’t help things.  Misconceptions nearly always have some basis in truth, after all, it’s rarely just people being ignorant for the hell of it.  For The Prince Of Egypt to stride in, as the new feature film from an animation company that had only just released their debut feature (which was so wildly different in tone, style and animation technique that one could be forgiven for thinking that they weren’t even by the same studio), looking remarkably similar to many sub-par Disney knock-offs on paper and with a budget three times that of most non-Disney failures, was practically inviting premature commercial suicide.

But, as we all know, the film ended up a rousing success.  So, how come?  Well, one could throw some of the credit to the Christmas release window.  A biblical epic released one week away from that most religious of holidays?  That’s practically ordering devoutly religious families to clear a spot on their calendar for a seasonal visit or seven to the cinema!  Plus, it’s based on an Old Testament tale, Moses and his freeing of the slaves of Egypt to be exact, and one that has basis in plenty of other faiths (the film even has a short little bit post-credits where it quotes passages in the Quran, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament that praise Moses and the influence his story has on their faith) to make it very approachable for foreign audiences of different religious persuasion.  It’s also really accurate; though the film takes some liberties with the Exodus text (and admits so before you even see a single frame of film), the production crew called in Bible scholars, theologians of various faiths and Arab American leaders to keep the film as authentic as possible.  It sounds unnecessary, but let’s not forget the recent furores that sparked up over Noah’s deviations from the original tale.  You could also give credit to the title, which is vague enough to draw in the more secular for whom the descriptor “bible story” would send them running for the hills (you may laugh, but Disney named Tangled and Frozen the way they did because they believe that one of the main reasons for the failure of The Princess & The Frog was the fact that “Princess” was in the title), and the trailer promised an action-packed romp that could bring in excited young boys.

You could say all of those things.  I instead choose to believe a simpler, much more naive reason: The Prince Of Egypt succeeded at the box office because The Prince Of Egypt is f*cking brilliant.

As the opening statement for DreamWorks Animation it was clearly intended to be before the whole Antz business happened, The Prince Of Egypt is as bombastic as they come.  Everything carries a grandness to it, the kind that only a large risk-taking budget can provide.  It’s there in the look of the film; environments are large and wide open let crawling in detail, character animations look and feel extremely natural and fluid, conspicuous CG is used to enhance certain scenes and achieve its more audacious effects (like the parting of The Red Sea).  It’s there in the storytelling; which is melodramatic in the best kind of way, where everything is epic in scope and every action is a giant event of great significance, yet it is all rooted in a strong central relationship.  It’s there in the songs (hell, the score in general); which is the definition of grandiose and bombast, with booming choirs harmonising foreboding chants, an orchestra that sounds populated enough to fill an aircraft hangar and whose every note sounds like it’s heralding the incoming apocalypse.  You could not get closer to the kind of overblown historical epics that classic Hollywood used to pump out if you spliced in scenes from The Ten Commandments at random intervals (fitting, considering that the project allegedly came about when Steven Spielberg directly told Katzenberg that he should make The Ten Commandments).

In fact, why am I even describing what the film is like when all I need to do, literally all I need to do, to get you to understand the feel of this film is to just show you the plagues montage?

That is the whole movie.  It remains at that kind of grand sweeping level for the majority of its run time, and that makes the film unique.  Not just for animated films but for films in general, let us not forget that that kind of overblown historical/biblical epic was nearly killed off nearly half a century ago after the production disaster known as Cleopatra (when your film is the highest grossing of the year yet still lost money overall due to the exorbitant budget, history is going to write you off as a failure).  To put it simply, they didn’t make films like this in 1998.  They still don’t, in fact.  There’s genuine spectacle, here, especially helped by the fact that this is one utterly gorgeous film.  This film is 15 years old, I saw it in rather crappy standard definition, possibly poorly upscaled to HD, and it is still one of the best looking animated films I have ever seen.  There’s the detail that accompanies every scene, no matter how small, the smoothness and fluidity of the character animations, the opulence that drips from the Egyptian palace and the meagreness of the residencies of the peasants and the slaves.  And then there are the individual shots, many of which you could divorce from the context of the film and hang up in art galleries and nobody in their right mind would go, “Hang on, why on earth is that here?”

 

Artist Unknown, 1998
Artist Unknown, 1998

But opulence and spectacle unchecked just leads to the realisation that all you’re watching is empty flash, all the pretty visuals in the world can’t save a film without some kind of emotional grounding.  Fortunately, The Prince Of Egypt realises this also and so the dramatic centre of the film comes from the relationship between Moses and Rameses.  In this telling, Moses’ basket is found by the wife of Pharaoh Seti’s consort wife and he is brought up as Rameses’ adopted brother leading to the central dramatic conceit being whether Moses can convince his brother to do the right thing before he has to take everything from him.  The opening third of the film actually does a good job at establishing their relationship, they’re dearly loving brothers with Moses as the troublesome younger sibling and Ramses as the one who is being groomed for leadership and is eager for some kind of acceptance from his father.  The whole film runs on this relationship they both have and its eventual disintegration, and it’s why we take somewhere in the region of at least 50 to 60 minutes before the plagues actually come about.  The film wants to establish its characters before it rains down God’s fury and it works brilliantly; there’s a scene just before the final plague where Moses confronts Rameses one last time and the two recall a memory of a prank that Moses played and it’s genuinely saddening.  It never forgets this central dynamic, even during what should be a thoroughly uplifting climax when it takes the time to show Rameses stuck on a rock in the middle of the sea, futilely shouting Moses’ name to the heavens whilst Moses stands miles away, clearly still full of regret for the loss of that relationship.

Also helping that emotional grounding is some excellent low-key voice work.  The only one who ever lets loose with theatricality is Ralph Fiennes as Rameses, which is rather fitting, actually.  Everyone else plays things very reserved which leads to performances that feel genuine.  Patrick Stewart shows up as Pharaoh Seti and his calm, soothing voice is what really sells the scene where he informs Moses about the slaughtering of the peasants’ first born, as if he thinks it will actually cheer up the horrified Moses.  Val Kilmer plays Moses and his voice work is excellent here, most specifically in showcasing his character’s evolution.  He starts off like Fiennes, very theatrical and jovial and pompous and all that, but he actually changes up his voice as Moses goes through the film, toning down any and all theatricality in favour of a subdued and clearly weary voice, as if he can barely shoulder the weight of his task and the emotional toil and guilt it’s saddling him with.  He also, uncredited, voices God and his performance is so soft and paternal that, quite honestly, it amazes me that this isn’t one of the standards for God portrayals; it fits so damn perfectly.

And speaking of God, I’m pretty sure the thing that pushed The Prince Of Egypt over the top for me, the scene where it clicked that I was watching an incredible movie, was the way it treated The Angel Of Death.  Now, let’s face facts, this scene in concept is utterly horrifying.  I realise that God slaughtering all of the first-born sons of Egypt really is the only way to move Pharaoh and that it’s all for the greater good and how God only did it because he was forced to this extreme, but it is a truly horrifying thing to have happen.  Wisely, The Prince Of Egypt does not attempt to sugarcoat it and depicts the scene exactly as it sounds on paper.  And yet the scene is actually rather beautiful with the way that it’s constructed, the muted and slightly washed-out colour scheme and the impeccable sound design coming together to create a scene that I genuinely feel comfortable calling art.  It doesn’t pull its punches, not one of them, and the result is a wondrous scene of horrifying beauty.  And the film actually lets the scene breathe, it lets the distressing nature of the action linger and settle instead of immediately cutting to happy smiley fun times (the song that follows on actually starts downbeat and despondent and waits a while until it becomes triumphant).  In fact, just watch it, words can’t do it justice.

If there is one thing about The Prince Of Egypt that I don’t like (and it is just the one thing, as I otherwise love this movie), it’s the songs.  They’re not bad; not by any means, they’re all very grand and bombastic and overwrought and that kind of earnest go-for-broke-ness is extremely rare, so they have a charm of their own if nothing else.  It’s just that they’re all kind of… forgettable.  Interchangeable.  Eh.  Other than their overblown nature, they haven’t really got anything going for them.  They lack a tune, they lack something that makes them stand-out.  To compare it to something else that came out in 1998, remember how Mulan had “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You”?  Course you do, pretty much everybody who has seen Mulan can at least hum the basic tune of that at the drop of a hat.  Well, The Prince Of Egypt doesn’t have anything close to that, they all just wander in and out of the film when necessary and lack long term impact or memory.  I also really don’t like “Playing With The Big Boys Now” which is lyrically lazy instead of catchy, does little to advance proceedings and goes on for what feels like twice its actual length.  Oh, and the end credits feature a song by Boyz II Men, in case you wanted a reminder that this was a film made in 1998.

I’m going to admit that I was rather apprehensive going into The Prince Of Egypt.  Growing up, I attended a Junior School that basically forced you to be a Christian and to be knowledgeable about religion, we had mandatory daily prayers and mandatory weekly hymn assemblies with some scripture thrown in for good measure.  So my distancing from religion comes just as much from it being a forced part of my daily life growing up as it did my general lack of faith.  And I do not like being preached to about the wonders of religion; unlike most notable atheists, I’m not opposed to religion as a whole (I actually have a great deal of admiration for people whose faith is strong enough to believe in a divine power that looks down on us all), but I am opposed to people trying to force their way of life upon others.  Therefore, I tend to be apprehensive whenever biblical tales are presented for my filmic enjoyment.  This is a dumb subconscious feeling to have, I am well aware, especially since the Bible is comprised of some of the most classic and compelling narrative conflicts available, but it’s a feeling that continues to sit with me to this day (you’d think that Darren Aronofsky’s superb Noah would have beaten that prejudice into the dirt, you’d sadly be mistaken).

Fortunately, The Prince Of Egypt blows away past that cynical barrier by being like pretty much no other animated film out there.  Its strong emotional centre, its gorgeous animation, its great voice work and its infusion of classic Hollywood excess combine together to create a film that had my full attention from practically frame one and my emotional investment well and truly secured by the 15 minute mark at the latest.  It’s also a film that commits fully to its material; if this were a Disney film, they would have diluted the impact by adding a wacky talking animal sidekick to provide the kids with some mood-lightening laughs (I love Mulan with all of my heart, I would love it ten times more if Mushu were nowhere in sight).  Instead, The Prince Of Egypt is 100% committed to telling its story in the manner and tone that it deserves, and it’s all to its total benefit.  This is one of those films that has slipped into cult classic status almost accidentally, the result of a film that was a smash upon release but just kinda got overshadowed by, and for being so unlike, a studio’s later output, but absolutely deserves its status.  This is a f*cking fantastic film!


With two financial and critical successes under its belt, plus an Academy Award in only its second feature release, it would seem like a safe bet to say that DreamWorks Animation had arrived.  It would, however, be 15 months before they released their next film, one that would underwhelm critically and fall victim to a distressing trend at the box office.  The Road To El Dorado is the film in question and, next week, we’ll see if it truly deserved its fate or not.

A brand new instalment in “DreamWorks! A Retrospective” will be posted every Monday at 1PM here on Failed Critics!  I am also taking suggestions for a much better name for this feature.

Callum Petch went to descend to amend for a friend.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

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Antz

dreamworks-animation-filmsby 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”.


Antz Poster01] 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)!