Time to introduce my DreamWorks Blogathon. While DreamWorks doesn’t have the kind of consistent track record as Disney/Pixar when it comes to quality movies, they’re probably the only animation studio right now that can rival the Disney Corporation when it comes to animated movie quality. When DreamWorks is on, their movies can be phenomenal. It’s also nice that they’ve developed their own distinct style over the years. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call them edgy, they’re more willing to slip in touches of more adult humour, subtle enough that kids won’t get it.
In a way, you could call them the ant-Disney animation studio. But we’ll get more into that when we get to Shrek.
As of posting this, I’m having internet problems and won’t be able to add gifs. I’ll be adding them in when my connection is a lot better.
Early on in the studio’s history, they had a bit of a feud with Pixar. Most of that had to do with disagreements over what would become DreamWorks’ first movie, Antz, and Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. I talked about that feud a fair amount already in my A Bug’s Life post, so I won’t go too much into detail here. But there is evidence that Antz was conceived as early as 1988, when it was pitched to Disney’s main animation studio. Disney didn’t accept the pitch. When Jeffry Katzneberg left Disney over a dispute with Disney’s then CEO Michael Eisner, he took the Antz idea with him. And being the man who produced The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, that’s no small departure.
DreamWorks was first founded by Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and Dave Geffen (founder of multiple music recording studios). They opened their first studio on a former Universal Studios lot, which used to host Amblin Entertainment. To this day, Dreamworks still has a bit of a partnership with Amblin Entertainment. Despite their access to sound stages and sets, DreamWorks preferred to film on location. Animators from the short-lived Amblimation studio joined the company. Amblimation, also founded by Steven Spielberg, only ever made three movies: An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story and Balto.
DreamWorks is mostly known for its animated movies, but its first release was actually the live-action political thriller, The Peacemaker. Meanwhile, production for Antz began in 1996, after production had already commenced for DreamWorks’ second animated feature film, The Prince Of Egypt. Early on, Woody Allen took on the lead role of Z. After the feud with Pixar over A Bug’s Life and accusations of plagiarism, Dreamworks bumped up Antz’s original release date in 1999 to October of 1998, even debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival that September. That made little time for animators to complete their work. Let alone how they didn’t have the animation budget to rival Pixar at the time.
As far as I can tell, there isn’t all that much production information available on Antz. It didn’t innovate CGI animation like pretty much every Disney and Pixar movie did at the time. They didn’t have the resources, time or experience needed to. But even though it had a rushed production cycle for a then brand new studio, the animation isn’t all that bad. Unlike Pixar, which took a lot of liberties with their insect design, Antz actually gives the ants six legs. The queen actually features an enlarged abdomen, and there are references to how the queen produces pretty much every child in the colony. The movie makes more references to ant colony structure, like the differences between soldiers, workers and queens. Of course without saying a word about the drones. And as much as Pixar’s alterations worked for A Bug’s Life, sticking closer to ant culture works in favour of Antz’s story.
Antz released to critical praise, earning a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 7.7/10. That’s in contrast to A Bug’s Life’s 92% rating, but an average score of 7.9/10. And although it didn’t make nearly as much money as the more well-known Pixar’s movie, it earned $171 million off a $42 million budget, making it more than profitable. Roger Ebert praised the movie, calling it “sharp and funny”, and also praised its interesting visuals. Gene Siskel preferred it over A Bug’s Life, and later ranked it 7th on his list of the best films of 1998.
Pixar director John Lasseter described it as a schlock version of A Bug’s Life, but he later admitted that he never saw it.
Antz became the first CGI animated movie to be released on DVD, although they used the 35mm print to produce the copies instead of using the original files to encode the movie directly. Dreamworks initially planned a direct-to-video sequel, but it was eventually cancelled sometime after Dreamworks closed its short-lived television animation unit.
I watched this movie on TV years ago, and I remember not thinking much of it, having seen A Bug’s Life a number of times already. Back then, I bought into the whole rip-off narrative. After finally seeing it again now, I must say, these two movies are quite different. Sure, they both star neurotic outcasts within their ant colony, but while Flik of A Bug’s Life is an inventor, Z is more of an independent thinker, refusing to stick with his assigned role in his community. And in doing so, he discovers a plot by the colony’s top general (played by Gene Hackman) to wipe the colony clean and build a much stronger colony.
The general would build this new colony using only his soldiers and his fiancé, Princess Bala (played by Sharon Stone). Oh yeah, and the almost always entertaining Christopher Walken portrays Colonel Cutter, the general’s main advisor. Other celebrity voice3s include Sylvester Stallone, Jennifer Lopez, Danny Glover and Dan Aykroyd. This starts a general pattern of DreamWorks’ of focusing more on well-known celebrities and less on more experienced voice actors.
The movie is also noticeably darker than A Bug’s Life. There’s a battle scene where pretty much every soldier ant dies, and even a moment where an ant’s severed head is talking to Z for a few minutes before it finally passes on. And of course there’s the genocide plot. Like I said earlier, there are touches of subtle adult humour in this movie that kids most likely won’t get. That of course was an early way to separate DreamWorks from the more child friendly atmosphere in Disney’s movies, and it worked.
I’m not ready to call this movie better than A Bug’s Life, not when I only just watched it again. But I can at least see why a lot of people may prefer this somewhat forgotten movie over Pixar’s bug movie. The story at least works within actual ant culture better than A Bug’s Life does, and it feels more focused. That said, I didn’t really feel much emotion during either movie. They’re just fun stories that you mostly forget about after watching, besides the occasional joke and the general plot. And while Flik in A Bug’s Life is adorably neurotic, Z sometimes comes across as slightly annoying. But for DreamWorks’ first movie, it’s pretty good. It shows hints of some of the genuine works of art that would come later.
Next up is The Prince Of Egypt, followed by The Road To El Dorado. It won’t take too long for us to get to DreamWorks’ first mega hit, Shrek, since it’s only movie number 5. I haven’t yet decided whether I’m going to talk about DreamWorks’ only straight to video release, Joseph: King of Dreams, or not. But if I do, that would go between Chicken Run and Shrek, bumping down Shrek to spot number 6. But before that, we’ll get to the first of DreamWorks’ several religiously inspired movies.