Learning Life Lessons From a Colony of 'Antz'

'I've always loved ants," says Dan Aykroyd, with just the hint of a smile. "They crawl across my desk and they're really like dogs, you know? They'll stop, they'll stand on your finger, they'll look at you, and if you put a paper clip on them they'll carry it away. I've always loved ants!"

If the DreamWorks movie studio has its way, everyone else will soon be loving ants as much Aykroyd claims to. Or at least one particular ant: Z-4195, the unlikely hero of "Antz," opening today after one of the season's most energetic promotional campaigns.

Z is played by Woody Allen, supported by Sharon Stone as the princess he falls in love with, Gene Hackman as a military ant with evil plans for their colony, and Sylvester Stallone as a soldier ant who trades places with Z in a poorly planned romantic scheme. Aykroyd and Jane Curtin, who play a pair of friendly wasps, were among several "Antz" talents visiting the recent Toronto International Film Festival to beat the drum for their movie.

Danny Glover, also on hand to publicize the picture, waxed more philosophical than Aykroyd when asked why he agreed to a voice-only part in an insect-based movie - not an obvious choice for the star of the "Lethal Weapon" series and the dramatic "Beloved," a far more serious film coming later this month.

"Human beings always try to displace their own emotions - and understand themselves better - through animals," he says. "The idea that we can take such an insignificant little being and [use it] to understand something about loving, ideas, dreams is very intriguing to me."

Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson, who directed the movie, were drawn to ants for similar reasons. "They're hard-working," Darnell notes. "They have a social structure; they build things that are greater than themselves. In those and many other ways, they mirror ourselves." Honeybees have comparable habits, he adds, "but I don't think [a honeybee movie] would have been as interesting. They don't battle termites!"

How do Darnell and Johnson know so much about the insect world? Before embarking on the 18-month filming process for "Antz," which follows "Toy Story" as the second all-computer-animated film in Hollywood history, they spent a full year researching and preparing the project.

"We read books and studied [ants] any way we could," Darnell reports. "And we learned that [their] world is far more frightening, horrifying, and bizarre than you'd ever want to bring to the screen! But we were able to [use] a few nuggets."

While most of "Antz" is pure fun, centering on a neurotic hero amazingly close to the characters Allen has played in his own live-action movies, the directors acknowledge a political undertone in its depiction of a society filled with job-obsessed conformists at the mercy of self-centered rulers and a military tyrant who could destroy them all.

"Something animated filmmaking allows you to do - and it's particularly exciting - is to be far more mythological than in a live-action film," Johnson says. "You can have a stronger theme and moral to the story, without feeling you're beating people over the head or being overly cute.... We wanted a layer of the story [to be] about the politics of this ... sprawling and rather fascist world."

Still, messages and subtexts were hardly the point of the film, which ultimately cares less about ideas than comedy, action, and romance. "There was about a year of preparation," Johnson says, "when we worked it all out traditionally, pencil on paper, then filmed that and watched it. If you're entertained by stick figures, you know you've got a movie that's telling a good story."

Viewers here generally agreed that "Antz" succeeds well at its lively tasks, although few considered it superior to "Toy Story," still the high-water mark for computer-animated entertainment. "Antz" may meet its biggest test in two months when Disney releases "A Bug's Life," pitting a flea circus against a wicked grasshopper. Whichever film wins at the box office, moviegoers are in for a more insect-friendly year - and some lucky creepy-crawler might even emerge with an Oscar in its mandible.

* Rated PG; contains battle scenes and a bar brawl. David Sterritt's e-mail address is:

sterrittd@csps.com

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