Antz vs. A Bug’s Life

Where Antzand A Bug’s Lifediffer is in semantics: thinking for yourself, or thinking of yourself.

The masses usually expect two main things from a movie: eye candy and a mediocre plot. In the ever-growing children’s movie market, neither old-school cartoons nor newcomer computer-animated features are exempt from the rule. This holiday’s treats, Antz and A Bug’s Life, give you healthy doses of both, with stunning visuals and hilarious scripts. But it’s a shame that there’s a little more under the veneer that most people either won’t catch or won’t care about.

We start with Antz, the bold recent attempt of yet another DreamWorks theatric coup on the reigning Disney’s entertainment market. We’ll see it again by Christmas with DreamWorks’ much-anticipated release of Prince of Egypt, an animated epic of Biblical proportions (literally), which is slated to appease all of the patrons that Disney has successfully alienated.

DreamWorks has done some fine work to date for such a young production company. The product of Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen, the company has pumped out some colossal pictures, including Amistad, Deep Impact, and Saving Private Ryan. Antz is certainly no let-down. Graphically and comically, that is.

There’s this sneaky moral conflict of interests between the two ant flicks that’s worth analyzing though. First, we’ll start with the similarities.

Insecti similaritus

  • Lots of all-star voices behind assorted colorful characters
  • Great animation and imaginative design
  • Inside production jokes
  • Ant colonies, communal work-ethics, lone ant heroes, and the theme of individuality

Antz has a bunch of big Hollywood names bringing its characters to life: Woody Allen is Z-4195, the hero ant; Gene Hackman is General Mandible, the evil military leader; Sharon Stone is Princess Bala; Sylvester Stallone plays a fellow soldier ant (who else but Rambo?).

Bug’s has some big names too: Dave Foley, the monotone guy from “NewsRadio”, as Flik the hero ant; Hopper, the evil grasshopper, played by Kevin Spacey doing his patented diabolical schtick that he honed so well in Se7en and Swimming with Sharks; Julia Louis-Dreyfus is Princess Atta; David Hyde-Pierce is a walking stick with the personality of Niles on “Frasier”; and so on. There’s also an abundance of clever character names: P.T. Flea, the bug circus ring leader; Heimlich, the overweight caterpillar; Tuck and Roll, the roly-poly circus performers.

Both Antz and Bug’s did a great job of ushering us into the world of insects. Each film had its own interpretation, and both were ripe with good ideas. Antz had some pretty impressive worker scenes in the cavernous underground ant complex. Bug’s had the best detail by far though. Manned by the graphics company Pixar, the film made ground-breaking animation, wonderfully original and ingeniously designed. Particularly intricate was Bug City, a miniature New York scene replete with rushing bug taxis, street mimes and bums, and skyscrapers.

Then, there are the almost standard insider production jokes that add to each film’s cleverness. There is a scene in Antz that pays direct tribute to DreamWorks’ war epic Saving Private Ryan. It’s a battle scene between the ants and the enemy termites. We hear loud explosions and tentacle-to-tentacle combat and see a fare amount of bug carnage in the aftermath.

Likewise, in Bug’s there is a few one-liners that will probably go over the little ones’ heads but they’re funny inside jokes nonetheless. For instance, in explaining the laws of nature, one bug tells Flik, “It’s that whole circle of life thing,” an obvious jest at Disney’s hit The Lion King. And without ruining the very end, I’d advise anyone to stay till the credits roll.

In Antz, Woody Allen isn’t just in the film; it practically is a Woody film, minus his name in the writing credits. If you’re a Woody fan to begin with (as I admit to being) then you probably won’t mind that much. His are the laugh-but-you-shouldn’t-be comedy formulas, kind of like “Seinfeld”. It’s not that the comedy doesn’t pay off; it’s just that it’s so spineless and despicably funny. Not so with Bug’s. In Bug’s the dialog is rich and clever, yet knee-slapping in all the right places. The comedy isn’t self-centered either, yet it retains a theme that both films share: individuality.

Both Antz and Bug’s stories revolve around ant colonies and the lone adventures of two specific ants, Z and Flik, respectively. These two are part of a social machine, one of complex interconnected work ethics and individual roles. They are the epitome of “cogs on a gear.” Where each story goes from here is where Antz and Bug’s differ.

Philosophus differenti

  • Antz – segregated community.
  • Bug’s – desegregated community.
  • Antz – enemy is within. Bug’s – enemy is without
  • Antz – social reform and civil unrest. Bug’s – communal ingenuity and cooperation.

In Antz, the caste system is in full operation. We see two factions of ants, the working class and the warring class. These two don’t really get along. The smaller workers often got into skirmishes with the bigger, stronger soldier ants in the local pub.

On Ant Island, we see Flik and his colony of fellow ants in a similar plight in life – gathering food. What we don’t see is the stark segregation in the society between worker and warrior. All the ants look alike and serve the same functions together, both harvesting and combat. Subtle difference but important.

Even the enemies that face each ant colony are different. At first, the Antz are at war with the termites. But we soon discover that the real enemy is within its own ranks, the power-hungry General Mandible who is planning a genocidal coup. He intends to eradicate the worker ants, deeming them inferior, and usurp the colony as his own. This was to me the most puzzling notion in the movie. Never mind the need of an antagonist. What army general in his right mind would destroy his source of supply? Nit-pick.

In Bug’s, the ants’ mortal enemy is the marauding grasshoppers, led by the evil Hopper. The story is borrowed from Aesop’s fable of the ant who stored up food for the winter and the grasshopper who frolicked the summer away. Here, however, Hopper and his gang take over and force the ants into submission to do the work for them. There are no mutinous subplots within the ant colony; perhaps this is less realistic, but at least there aren’t as many shades of gray. We have clearly defined good and evil (keep in mind the target audience is still children; at that age, they need all the polar reinforcement they can get).

Finally, there is the difference in social themes between Antz and Bug’s. With the problems of personifying an ant colony aside, if Antz is a story of social revolution then Bug’s is a precursor to the Industrial Revolution. Very big difference. In Antz, Z considers his colony as a totalitarian prison and complains, “I’m supposed to do everything for the colony? What about my needs?” Makes a great platform for individualism over community. And at the end, Z describes his tale as, “Just your average boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-changes-underlying-social-structure movie.”

What a stark contrast to Bug’s, in which we still see the theme of individualism, yet painted in such a way that doesn’t destroy the concept of community. Instead, Flik is an inventor, an engineer. He makes such mechanical wonders as a telescope, megaphone, and harvester with not much more than twigs and grass. As Z breaks his ties to “conformity,” Flik is making his community a better, more efficient place to live in. Granted, the colony is slow in recognizing his contributions, but such is the life of the inventor. And during his adventures to overcome the colony’s disregard of his talents, we are rewarded with teamwork, heroism, and triumph over oppression. Sounds rather lofty, doesn’t it? Well believe me, it’s that good!

There are two very relevant analogies presented in Bug’s that reinforce this notion. The first is proffered by Flik near the beginning. He reassures the juvenile Princess Dot that just as a seed, she will one day grow up and become a mighty ant, capable of anything. The second analogy was given by Hopper to his lackeys in the mosquito bar. He warned that while one seed would never injure a fellow bug, a mountain of seeds could surely bury one. He was referring to the threat that Flik’s brand of revolutionary could mean to a dictatorship.

All this said, I thought both films were great. In weighing the two in light of children’s entertainment though, I would have to consider these finer points. Where Antz and Bug’s differ is in semantics: thinking for yourself as opposed to thinking of yourself. A Bug’s Life has my vote.

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