Does the use of ‘z’ as a plural mark something out as being shit? Boyz II Men certainly had me thinking so. But, through snippets and half-memories, I’d gathered that Antz had the kind of political undertones that set it aside from your run-of-the-mill ’90s kids film that plays fast and loose with plurals.
Even though I’d seen the film’s “another ant film” counterpart, A Bug’s Life, as a child, I wasn’t prepared for how much graver and sincere Antz would be. To say that it has political undertones would be a childish reading: The film’s opener contains a sign that reads “Free Time Is For Training”; not the first jab at dehumanization in the industrial age, and certainly not the last. The quote “The workers control the means of production” is taken almost verbatim from The Communist Manifesto, and, aside from head-nods and quips, the story as a whole details a successful execution of Marx’s worker revolution, theorized in the same book.
Considering 20 years has passed since Antz’s release, there hardly needs to be another straight-up regurgitation on how easy it is to join dots between the plot and Marxism for Dummies, but it’s probably an undersell to summarize the film, as CNN did, as “a nice little message about not being pigeonholed by society”. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same reviewer were to reduce Animal Farm to “a nice little fairy tale but not really for kids”.
This nice little message comes wrapped in a plot that is an interesting remix of a classic mythological template first explained in Joseph Campbell’s book,The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
According to Campbell, who analyzed countless myths and found they all follow a similar path mirrored in numerous works from ancient legends to modern blockbusters, the plot of myths is predictable: a call to adventure rouses a hero from their homeland, where they must cross over into another realm, overcome great trials, undergo radical transformation, and then return home, never to be the same again.
The story represents the dissolution of old orders to the point where even the Hero’s journey archetype is starkly skewed; Z’s journey to a strange land occurs twice over: the first time, Z accidentally goes to war and undergoes an unintentional radical transformation from a worker to a solider. The second time, he goes to Insectopia – the fabled land of personal and economic freedom through abundant resources – and returns with the idea that an autonomously ruled region can work together harmoniously.
While that point wasn’t belabored in this 82 minute film, it’s hinted at by the fact that Z had no problem maintaining the communal fire and taking orders from his peers when he saw the value and viability of personal freedom gained through cooperation. Z, as a complaint-prone weak link in a demoralizing society, is a suitable anti-hero to elucidate this skewed plot template.
The final resolution of the hero’s journey, in which the hero returns home having undergone a fundamental change, actually brings about political change more than personal transformation. Again, Antz defies the template to avoid centering the tale on a single being. A story about a brave, scourge-slaying god-amongst-men that returns home to an uproarious celebration of his might and courage would tear down the other 75 minutes of meticulous, informed development.
One surprising thing to me – perhaps because of its Netflix synopsis – was the story’s lack of emphasis on the love line. Far from being an ongoing driving force to the narrative, the Princess character is a mere device. She is the catalyst for his coincidental call to adventure, and is reintroduced at the end to tie things together. She gives the story a neat pair of bookends as a safety net for if a barefaced Marxist allegory, packaged up as a kids film, isn’t a box office hit. Love in the hero’s journey – while often a prime driving force, as in the case of Odysseus and Penelope – isn’t represented here as the be all and end all, to show the collectivist tone of the film.
Antz is both a laser-focused political fable and an innovation on a template to which it otherwise sticks very closely. Despite bringing in half of A Bug’s Life‘s box office success – even following the success of Toy Story, which amped up the global appetite for animated blockbusters and showed audiences that 3D models are viable – Antz is a brave production, which probably sits mostly forgotten two decades later.