Antz (1998)

2017 #119
Eric Darnell & Tim Johnson | 83 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

Antz

I don’t know if there was something in the Californian water in 1998, but in the same year that major Hollywood studios faced off with similarly-themed disaster movies Deep Impact and Armageddon, fledgling CG-animation outfits did the same with ant-themed kids’ movies. One was Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, which has endured thanks to the ever-increasing cachet of the studio’s brand (it was only their second feature). The other, of course, was Antz, which has the starry-named voice cast but was only by DreamWorks, whose later success with the likes of Shrek has done little to elevate the standing of their entire oeuvre. Anyway, it’s a bit pointless me making these comparisons because I’ve still not seen A Bug’s Life. Maybe in that review, someday.

As for Antz in isolation, it’s a funny old film. It feels more aimed at adults than kids: star Woody Allen is doing a version of his usual schtick, and the plot riffs heavily on political systems like Communism, a combination which means most of the jokes will soar over children’s heads. That’s before we get on to the brutal war sequence against monstrous termites. Plus, the entire voice cast seem to have wandered in from a completely different kind of movie: as well as Allen there’s Gene Hackman, Christopher Walken, Anne Bancroft, Sylvester Stallone, and Sharon Stone. I don’t know how well it plays for kids, but, as an adult, all of this stuff gives it a welcomely different flavour.

A bug's famous voice

Visually, it also lacks the slick (if somewhat plasticky) sheen of early Pixar. I can’t quite decide if the animation has aged badly (it is 20-years-old CGI, after all) or has a certain timelessness. Some of the computer animated stuff is blocky and jerky, but it’s frequently paired up with painted backgrounds for scenery and the like, which gives a kind of pleasant mixed-media feel to some sections. The effect is emphasised by the quality of the transfer that’s around: although in HD, it’s clearly been transferred from an actual film print, not clean digital files. And not a great print at that: there’s spots of dirt and everything. I guess that shows the lowly standing even DreamWorks holds the film in, but there’s a certain kind of old-school charm to it. Which is probably just misplaced nostalgia on my part for old lo-fi media, but hey-ho.

Antz is an odd little film. It doesn’t contain the easy charms of a Pixar movie, and I can imagine kids would get very little out of it; but for adult animation fans, it’s kind of interesting.

3 out of 5

Antz is on Channel 4 today at 2:30pm.

Madagascar (2005)

2008 #89
Eric Darnell & Tom McGrath | 82 mins | TV | U / PG

MadagascarIt had been my impression that this summer’s sequel, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, was a weaker follow-up to a middling original. Clearly I was reading the wrong review, because Rotten Tomatoes offers a different consensus: “an improvement on the original, with more fleshed-out characters, crisper animation and more consistent humor.” Oh. So what of the original?

The characters may not offer great depth, but they serve their purpose well enough. The plot focuses on Marty the zebra, voiced by Chris Rock, who wants to escape to the wild, and Alex the lion, voiced by Ben Stiller, who doesn’t — but doesn’t have a choice when they’re whisked off half-an-hour in. This might leave David Schwimmer’s giraffe Melman and Jada Pinkett Smith’s hippo Gloria with little to do but support, but in an 80-minute kids’ animation you can’t expect an Altman-esque portmanteau.

The animation is better than I expected. At the time, the angular style looked cheap, like a step back from the realism-aiming work of Pixar and the Shrek team. It’s just stylised however, still allowing plenty of expression in characters’ faces and detail in their movements and the locations. It’s not a exceptional example of how brilliant computer animated films can be (unquestionably Pixar’s forte, especially in the likes of Ratatouille and WALL-E’s earlier scenes), but it’s better than some sparse and clunky efforts (such as Aardman’s Flushed Away).

Equally, the humour is above average. Large laughs may be sporadic but are there, particularly in a few moments that nicely spoof other films. Standouts include Planet of the Apes and American Beauty — clearly aimed at the adult audience who have been dragged along by the kids, have come expecting Pixar-level entertainment, or want to see what Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen can be doing in a family film. Plus there’s the penguins, a little band of wannabe escapees who thankfully aren’t overused, especially as the last few years have seen a severe overload of penguin movies (March of the Penguins, Happy Feet, Surf’s Up…) If there’s one element that could’ve been bumped up it’s the monkeys; on the other hand, like the penguins, they’re not done to death.

Madagascar doesn’t reach the highs of Pixar — no surprise there — but it’s at least nudging the ballpark. If the sequel’s better then I might even seek it out before it makes it all the way down to TV.*

4 out of 5

* I never did; and now it’s been on TV (several times), I still haven’t. ^