The Number One Movie in America: Antz
By Sean Colleir
March 20, 2020
The tale of the great feud between “Antz,” from then-nascent Dreamworks Animation, and “A Bug’s Life,” from then-young Pixar, could fill a book. Suffice to say that it’s shocking we call duplicate releases a “Volcano”/“Dante’s Peak” situation, when that feud had nothing on the 1998 war of the insects.
From a historic perspective, however, the legacy of “Antz” is its role as the inaugural animated release from Dreamworks. While many remember the massive success of “Shrek” as the studio’s inauguration, the Smash Mouth loving ogre was actually the studio’s fifth creation. Dreamworks released “Antz” and “Prince of Egypt” in 1998, then big-time flop “The Road to El Dorado” and Aardman co-production “Chicken Run” in 2000 — all of which predated the 2001 appearance of Shrek and Donkey.
“Antz,” while not a towering success — it finished 21st overall for the year with a total of $90.7 million — was enough of a hit to give the fledgling studio some footing. As the second computer-animated feature overall (after “Toy Story”) to hit theaters, “Antz” turned a sufficient quantity of heads.
Those heads witnessed a bizarre, tonally dissonant mess of a movie. Apparently we were willing to overlook such issues 22 years ago.
The team behind “Antz” sought to corner a slightly older market than the crowds that flocked to “Toy Story,” adding enough mild profanity, violence and grown-up references to draw in teens and adults. That’s the only conceivable explanation for casting a deadpan Woody Allen as Z, the protagonist, or for having various insects toss out a stray “damn” or “hell.”
There’s not explanation whatsoever for a number of bizarre and, frankly, nightmarish sequences. A passing wasp is squished flat by a fly swatter. There’s an implication of sexual violence. After a surprisingly graphic battle sequence, Z has a conversation with a dying comrade — or, rather, the decapitated head of a dying comrade, lying alone on the corpse-strewn battlefield.
This was a family movie. It received a PG rating.
“Antz” also has an odd, drab look in comparison to “Toy Story” and hand-drawn animated films of the era. To be sure, all computer effects from the ’90s look woefully out-of-date now, and there are many worse examples than the work in “Antz.” But directors Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson seemed to be after a more twisted, dystopic feel with “Antz,” a fact that mostly makes the finished product unpleasant to watch.
In a very real way, “Antz” was the first attempt at a formula the studio perfected with “Shrek.” That film also skewed for a slightly older audience, instead targeting the preteen and early-teen set with humor that was rude instead of simply vulgar. I’m not sure there woudl’ve been a “Shrek” without the lessons learned on “Antz.” The film remains a historic curiosity of note to animation devotees.
I wouldn’t, like, watch it or anything. But still, interesting.
“Antz” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since the late 1970s. Please listen and subscribe!
Next time: Social distancing is tough on a submarine..