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Friday October 2, 1998

     Of the numerous apocryphal stories clustering around legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn, one concerns "The Life of the Bee," a book by Nobel Prize-winning author Maurice Maeterlinck. Goldwyn, or so the story goes, purchased the rights to this popular volume, not realizing it was a work of natural history until he read a treatment. "My God," he said, storming out of his office, "the hero is a bee!"
     Sam Goldwyn, meet "Antz."
     Not only is the hero of this computer-animated feature an ant, so is (except for some stray wasps and a horde of nasty termites) just about everyone else who matters. Basing an entire movie on the lifestyle of these industrious insects, even if some of Hollywood's most recognizable voices do the talking, is something of a lunatic idea. It halfway works, but unlike the computer-generated "Toy Story," there is no magic in the air, and "Antz" ends up more impressive than embraceable.
     The visual side of "Antz" (put together by computer animation firm PDI) is its most convincing aspect. Directors Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson are strongest when scenes require a sense of scale, and, given technology that can handle crowds of up to 60,000 ants, shots that illustrate the enormous business of the colony are something to see.
     The gimmick of "Antz" is that, guess what, these tiny insects act exactly like people. The film employs distinctive, well-known and probably pricey voice talent to beef up this illusion, bringing together performers like Woody Allen and Sylvester Stallone for probably the first and last time.
     Allen plays Z, an ant who wants to be all he can be in a colony that, not surprisingly, values team effort over individualism every time. But that doesn't stop Z from amusingly whining to his therapist about the problems of being "the middle child in a family of 5 million" and complaining that "handling dirt is not my idea of a fulfilling career."
     Even Z's pals, fellow worker ant Azteca (Jennifer Lopez) and brawny soldier ant Weaver (Stallone), feel this is an odd attitude in a place where everyone definitely has his place. But Z keeps wanting to strike a blow for himself as an individual, and when Princess Bala (Sharon Stone) goes slumming in a workers' tavern, he sees his chance.
     The daughter of the wise and prolific Queen (Anne Bancroft), Bala has problems of her own, the most pressing being her impending marriage to the darkly efficient General Mandible (Gene Hackman), an ant so tough he is thinking of overthrowing the queen and going into business for himself.
     Smitten by Bala, Z will do anything to see her again, including switching places with Weaver during a parade of soldier ants. This casual changing of roles has far-reaching effects for all concerned, as does a tall tale Z hears in a bar about a "better place," a veritable Insectopia, where, wonder of wonders, "you can be your own ant."
     One of the drawbacks of this scenario is that, to be frank, all ants look pretty much alike, which puts a crimp in the film's style. And having ants stand upright so they look more like people places an awkward emphasis on the insects' protruding tail-like appendages.
     All those celebrity voices are intended to get us over the movie's rough spots, but while some actors, notably Stallone and Danny Glover as a soldier ant named Barbados, do terrific jobs, Allen's trademark whining gets tiresome here in a way it doesn't in his own films.
     When everything is added up, "Antz" is more weird than funny, a film that has the potential to make both parents and young children uncomfortable. A portion of its nominal humor involves jokes about drinking beverages out of "an aphid's anus" and its menacing termites are animated versions of creatures who'd be more at home in Paul Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers."
     "Antz" is brief enough, clocking in at 83 minutes, but its story is too predictable to make an impact even in such a short space. Unlike "Toy Story," the dialogue here, written by Todd Alcott and Chris & Paul Weitz, is pro forma all the way. While it's amusing to hear ants mouthing Marxist dogma like "It's the workers who control the means of production," lines like "What kind of a chance do you have with a princess?" do not sound any better just because an insect is doing the talking.
     Sam Goldwyn, I feel your pain.

Antz, 1998. PG for mild language and menacing action. Released by DreamWorks Pictures. Directors Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson. Producers Brad Lewis, Aron Warner, Patty Wooton. Executive producers Penny Finkelman Cox, Sandra Rabins, Carl Rosendahl. Screenplay Todd Alcott and Chris Weitz & Paul Weitz. Editor Stan Webb. Music Harry Gregson-Williams, John Powell. Production design John Bell. Art director Kendal Cronkhite. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes. Woody Allen as Z. Sharon Stone as Princess Bala. Sylvester Stallone as Weaver. Gene Hackman as General Mandible. Jennifer Lopez as Azteca.

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