Woody Allen provides the voice of the formicary lead in “Antz,” the sophisticated, funny, and joyously subversive animated bug epic that, for all its snazzy computer animation, can claim the 1955 cartoon version of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” as a first cousin. Allen plays a klutzy, malcontent worker ant named Z, who wonders whether the key to his existential malaise is that he’s “a middle child in a family of 5 million.” Z dreams of a fabled aboveground Eden called Insectopia, and he confides his wanderlust to his soldier-ant buddy, Weaver (Sylvester Stallone).
Like Allen himself — who, in “Antz,” turns in a performance more winning than anything he’s done since “Hannah and Her Sisters” — Z’s schlemiel-style shtick wins over the unlikeliest of celebrities. Indeed, he charms the antennae off the colony’s bored princess, Bala (Sharon Stone, whose comedic skills have heretofore been underutilized), who’s less than thrilled about her engagement to the fascistic General Mandible (Gene Hackman). Together, Z and Bala risk their lives to check out Insectopia; to organize a worker rebellion against terrible conditions; and, having gotten in touch with their “inner maggots,” to thwart Mandible’s dastardly plan (establishing a new world order by flushing out the weak) and lead the masses to a brave new world of discarded sodas and rotting food.
It’s probably dangerous to read too much political theory into this terrific production, elegantly directed by Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson from a clever script by Todd Alcott, Chris Weitz, and Paul Weitz. So let’s say there is no parallel between this fantasy (so inviting that younger viewers will enjoy the broader bug jokes, so sly that adults will think of brilliant Jay Ward cartoons) and the story of DreamWorks’ founders who struck out on their own, the animation expert among them — Jeffrey Katzenberg — having rebelled against the Disney colony. Let’s say instead that on one level, Antz celebrates a healthy leftist balance of individual initiative and cooperative teamwork.
On another level, the movie is about the apolitical joys of perspective busting, something the modern artists and technical geniuses of animation can now do to perfection: Z and Bala, on their outdoor jaunt, fall into the sugary vastness of a doughnut and get stuck on acres of chewing gum wadded to the bottom of a sneaker; Z climbs a shoelace like it’s the Empire State Building.
Too, “Antz” is about the fun of creative free association: Z meets two lockjawed wasps — so very WASPy, played by Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd; General Mandible poses in a stance out of Patton; workers, rallying in support of their hero, chant “All we are saying is give Z a chance,” etc.
Finally, Antz is about the relief felt by star actors freed from the constraints of their physical selves and the egos that go with them. Who knew that in playing a bug, Woody Allen could so effectively crawl away from his current creepy reputation as a human?