HILARIOUS `ANTZ' RAISES THE BAR FOR COMPUTER-ANIMATED FILMS.
It's good to be different. That's the moral of ``Antz,'' a groundbreaking, hilarious and surprisingly mature, computer-animated feature.
It might just as well be the motto for DreamWorks' cartoon division. Though not the upstart studio's first in-house production - ``Antz'' was made by a digital outfit called PDI, much as Disney's ``Toy Story'' was put together by Pixar - DreamWorks' first animated release declares loud and clear that the studio won't slavishly imitate the Mouse's house formula.
No syrupy kiddie songs here. For that matter, not much for little tykes at all - the movie's humor is both political and psychologically sophisticated, and its big action set-piece looks like something out of ``Starship Troopers.'' Even the film's abundant visual wit, while certain to amuse insect lovers of all ages, is more concerned with the humor of breathtaking perspective shifts than in simple sight gags.
After such witless Disney knockoffs as ``Anastasia'' and ``The Quest for Camelot,'' ``Antz'' is refreshing evidence that animated features can be much more interesting and diverse than they've generally been allowed to be. That wouldn't mean much if the film didn't deliver, but happily, it's as awesome as it is cockeyed, a spectacle that never fails to dazzle the eye or tickle the laugh nodes.
Heck, the acting's even better than in most live-action films you'd care to mention. Starting with the voice work of Woody Allen.
He's the kvetching, unsatisfied Z, one of a few million drones who dig dirt in a bustling, underground ant colony. ``The system just makes me feel so insignificant'' he complains to his six-legged shrink at the start of the movie. ``Breakthrough,'' the analyst cries, ``You are insignificant!''
The part was written especially for Allen and he ad libs incorrigibly - there are almost as many good lines here as in one of the director's fabled, earlier funny ones. More than that, Z's neurotic griping soon instigates a colony-wide workers' revolt against conformity, just as the maniacal Gen. Mandible (Gene Hackman), head of the army, puts his plans for a genocidal power grab into play.
That's right, the cute talking ant movie is really a dialectical manifesto that pits socialism against fascism and individualism against regimentation. And this from a company owned by Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, two of the most successful mass entertainment capitalists the world has ever known. State-of-the-art computer graphics and delicious irony - I told ya, this film's got everything.
Anyway, nebbish Z becomes an inadvertent hero when he accidentally survives a battle with neighboring termites, kidnaps the equally restless Princess Bala (Sharon Stone) and flees to the outside world in search of the mythical Insectopia, where all God's pests live together in peace and plenty.
You can probably guess what that paradise turns out to be - ``Antz's'' most pronounced weakness is the obvious plotting in Todd Alcott and Chris and Paul Weitz's screenplay. Yet there's no predicting the delightful and exciting ways in which directors Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson create a bug's-eye view of a world bursting with gigantic, colorful new thrills and dangers. Yeah, it's a place where you can get trapped inside a single drop of water. But where else can you find such a temptingly delicious variety of dung?
Great leaps forward in computer-graphics capability give ``Antz'' a much richer, more detailed and intricately kinetic look than ``Toy Story's.'' Special software also makes for the most expressive CG faces yet seen, a real necessity when you don't want to waste an all-star voice cast that includes Dan Aykroyd, Anne Bancroft, Danny Glover, Jennifer Lopez, Sylvester Stallone and Christopher Walken.
On all fronts - graphic, thematic, character - ``Antz'' points to the vast potential computer animation holds while setting admirably high standards of its own. (And it's only the second feature ever done this way; Disney/Pixar's ``A Bug's Life,'' which will really have to be spectacular to compete, comes out at Thanksgiving). Best of all, it succeeds by following the kind of elegant logic craven, copycat Hollywood rarely embraces: when you've got amazing new creative technology, it's time to break the boring old rules.
The film: ``Antz'' (PG; violence, language).
The stars: Voices of Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Anne Bancroft, Gene Hackman, Jennifer Lopez, Sylvester Stallone, Christopher Walken.
Behind the scenes: Directed by Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson. Written by Todd Alcott, Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz. Produced by Brad Lewis, Aron Warner and Patty Wooton. Released by DreamWorks Pictures.
Running time: One hour, 23 minutes.
Our rating: Three and One Half Stars.
Photo: An ant named Z (the voice of Woody Allen) talks over his troubles with his friend Weaver (the voice of Sylvester Stallone) in ``Antz.''