By Josh Wolk
Updated February 18, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

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. ”Antz,” for example, gives 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.

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