Animation can be for adults too -- ''Antz,'' ''Yellow Submarine,'' and ''Who Framed Roger Rabbit'' appeal to both young and old

By Stephen Whitty
Updated February 12, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Animation can be for adults too

Cartoons are usually a child’s introduction to the movies, and like many first loves, they’re often treated shabbily later on. Yet there are plenty of grown-up pleasures in animation, and I don’t mean the exaggerated sex and violence of Fritz the Cat and Japanese animé. The best cartoons reach every age group. (The truth is, they once had to; Bugs Bunny shorts ran before features, not just kids’ films, and slipped in topical jokes for the adults.) The smartest animators still layer their humor. Children may not get the social satire of 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit or the antic angst of Antz, but that’s fine. They’re part of the adult conspiracy — the animators’ secret subtext and the parents’ reward.

Cartoons allow filmmakers to not only sneak in pop culture and politics but some problematic people as well, their flaws airbrushed away. When Yellow Submarine was released in 1968, the Beatles were already splintering in search of four separate careers. George Dunning’s psychedelic peace symbol of a film, however, featured lovable lads in year-old Sgt. Pepper dress-up, their good qualities emphasized to the Peter Max. In this paisley paradise, John was still funny (but no longer mean), Paul charming (but not smarmy), George mystic (but not tiresome), Ringo vulnerable (but not incompetent) — and all of them cheery chums. For young fans, it was a fantasy about sending the Blue Meanies away; for bigger ones, a fairy tale about keeping the Beatles the way they were.

Antz takes the makeover further, giving its stereotyped stars a second chance impossible in live action. Woody Allen’s dreamy longing for Sharon Stone was creepy enough in Stardust Memories; to try a reprise after Mia, Soon-Yi, and 18 long years would be grotesque. Yet by using only Allen’s and Stone’s voices, Antz directors Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson avoid the tabloid baggage while exploiting their stars’ time-tested personas. Allen’s Kafkaesque worker ant Z is his patented nervy nebbish, Stone’s Princess Bala her don’t-snow-me sexpot, and each of them more likable than they’ve been in years. Stripped of his pumped-up posing, even Sylvester Stallone charms; Christopher Walken delivers his customary edge without any of his clichéd, concomitant weirdness. More grown-up than the later, cuddlier A Bug’s Life, Antz provides, as Z concludes, a ”boy meets girl, boy likes girl, boy changes underlying social structure story.” This, as the creators of The Simpsons know, is one of the great advantages of animation: Subversion slips by swiftly at 24 cels per second.

One of the sneakier satires ever made, Robert Zemeckis’ mostly animated Who Framed Roger Rabbit starts as a Chinatown spoof, then takes a sharp turn left. In postwar L.A., murderous animated villains drop safes on people’s heads, while Eddie Valiant, Bob Hoskins’ hard-drinking PI, snarls, ”I don’t work for Toons.” But beyond the parody is a caustic look at race relations, from the no-Toons-allowed nightclub (where, as in The Cotton Club, banned minorities function as entertainers), to the vibrant Toon neighborhood destined for the steamroller (part of a highway-construction plot Chinatown writer Robert Towne once planned for a sequel), to the trying-to-pass Toon villain selling out his people. Given real actors and locations for Forrest Gump and Contact, Zemeckis surrenders to pathos and overstatement; allowed the allusions of animation and encouraged to disguise his sermons as satire, he draws his points with a finer brush.

Of course, children can enjoy Roger Rabbit for its once-in a-‘toon-time pairing of Donald and Daffy, Antz for its plucky heroes. But adults can relish all that and a host of other references, as funny as the ants’ Pulp Fiction boogie, as fleeting as that grab Baby Herman gives an unlucky script girl. And, together, parents and kids can enjoy what they’re so often promised but rarely given: a truly family show. p

Antz: A-
Who Framed Roger Rabbit: B+
Yellow Submarine: B