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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Overcast
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Woody Allen reaches out to the children of America in Antz, DreamWorks Pictures' initial foray into the prestidigitized magic of computer animation. Arriving at the picnic several weeks ahead of Disney's A Bug's Life, Antz hopes to walk away with the lion's share of the crumbs, but that may ultimately depend on whether Allen's nebbishy schlemiel, which we haven't seen much of recently, succeeds in finding a new audience--i.e., kids 3 to 93. In Antz, the role of Z, a worker ant who's tired of being the middle child in a family of 5 million, is built around Allen's vocal mannerisms the same way the genie in Aladdin was built around Robin Williams'. The difference is that Williams seemed to have dropped acid right before the microphone was turned on. Allen seems to have taken Prozac.

Actually, it's not his delivery so much as his material--zingers that could use more zing. That goes for the movie as a whole. It's beautifully done, but it lacks the hallucinatory craziness of Aladdin, the boys-and-their-toys nostalgia of Toy Story. Even computer animation, which gave that eye-popping, plasticized sheen to Toy Story, is beginning to seem as cozily familiar as the Pillsbury Doughboy. Not that Antz isn't a chewy piece of eye candy. Whether it's the Metropolis-like confines of the ant colony's underground home (all done in earth tones) or the myriad treasures of what turns out to be about one square foot of New York's Central Park, directors Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson have imagined their way into a bug's-eye-view of the universe, where you can drown in a single droplet of water.

What neither they nor the screenwriters have done is come up with a compelling story. A political allegory along the lines of George Orwell's Animal Farm, Antz waves the flag for individuality as Z first steps out of line and dances with Princess Bala (Sharon Stone) and then goes off with her in search of Insectopia--a perhaps mythical land of milk and honey and other assorted garbage scraps. Meanwhile, General Mandible (Gene Hackman doing George C. Scott doing General Patton doing Benito Mussolini) is carrying out his plan to destroy half the ant colony so that he can turn the other half into a military state with himself as Il Duce. Antz hammers away at its political theme--fascism bad, thinking for yourself good--as if it were a high school civics lesson. Of course, the movie's target audience is largely in grade school.

Or is it? Most of the jokes sail right over the toddlers' heads, landing in the laps of Allen's lifelong fans. Personally, I could have put up with all the Woodyisms, not to mention the teaching and preaching, if the movie simply had more antz in its pantz, more idiosyncrasy. For a salute to nonconformity, it sure likes to color within the lines.

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