Dreamworks 5: Antz

Today we get to look at one of the oddest entries in the Dreamworks Canon- their 1998 film Antz. This film was not only loaded with controversy but has more subplots, characters and ideas than it knows what to do with.

Let’s start with the controversy: After the success of Toy Story in 1995, Pixar began developing their next picture that would revolve around a colony of ants. This became A Bug’s Life. At the same time, executive Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney in a feud with then CEO Michael Eisner. Then in a very fishy move Dreamworks also developed their own ant movie under Katzenberg’s leadership, Antz.

In my opinion Antz is the inferior film over A Bug’s Life but aside from being ants they are actually quite different. A Bug’s Life is more of a traditional hero narrative where Antz is a hodge-podge of story elements focusing more on the colony than on one particular ant.

The lead character in Antz is a neurotic bug named Z voiced by Woody Allen. There are a lot of jokes meant for adults in this movie, and many of these come from Allen with his deadpan style of humor. It feels like such an odd choice to have Woody Allen waxing philosophical in a kid’s ant movie. I’m used to him as more of an R rated figure and so it’s a bit jarring to hear his voice and type of ramblings in a Dreamworks movie. However, the movie does move away from him for long stretches with subplots involving a soldier named Weaver, a princess named Bala and a worker ant named Azteka.

On the other hand, the main strength of Antz is how nutty and strange it is. It combines 8 different kinds of movies into one. It’s at all times a  romcom, war, dystopian, road trip, fantasy, prison escape and children’s movie all in one. This can make it unpredictable and fun to watch. I never know quite what it is going to do or what is happening next.

There are also a ton of characters in Antz. I counted 16 named characters with vocal work.  And not only do they have all of these characters, but they all look the same with the brown color palate. Most I wouldn’t be able to tell apart if it wasn’t for the voice actors.

While it can be fun to have all these plot points and characters. it can also be overwhelming. It’s tonally all over the place with a massive battle scene happening one minute and  playful banter at an ant landfill the next.

Some of the rules of the world building also don’t make sense. The ants are kept under strict routines and follow orders yet there is a long sequence at a bar where ants drink quite a bit including the princess (she’s sneaking but still). What kind of workers paradise is this place? I don’t know but it is just kind of all over the place.

With all the characters there are so many relationships and friendships to keep track. Because they all look the same the only way I knew who was who was the vocal work (one time when the celebrity vocal work actually helped Dreamworks). Still, for a kid it could be a very confusing film to watch.

The message also becomes muddled. Is it anti-war? Is it teamwork? Is it individualism or collectivism? Is it never give up and forgive others? Is it revolt against tyrants? All of that is in there but it feels very confusing.

A part of me wants to give Antz a smile worthy just out of shear strangeness. In a world of cookie-cutter movies at least it tries a bunch of weird stuff. It does score some laughs and is moderately entertaining but it is also a jumbled mess of a film. It’s not very rewatchable or visually appealing to me.

I am definitely much more of A Bug’s Life girl but I’m not going to give that many smiles to Dreamworks so this one is just barely entertaining enough to get one.

Overall Grade- C+

3 Magnificent 7s

mag7-2On Monday I had the chance to go to a screening of the Magnificent Seven. This is a remake of a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai. I had been planning to see the previous films before this new film but the opportunity presented itself so I took the unorthodox approach of seeing the newest film first. Now I have seen all 3 films and can let you know what I thought of all things Magnificent Seven. Maybe I could call it the Magnificent 21 and make it a triple feature?

Let’s start with Seven Samurai:

seventh-samSeven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa is a truly epic film. At 3 1/2 hours it is intimidating and long but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In Japanese with subtitles it is not for the faint at heart filmgoer who isn’t willing to work for their movie.

It tells the story we will see in all of these films. It’s a village that is being manipulated by bandits who are stealing their harvest The villagers decide to hire samurai to protect the village led by Kambei, a ronin who is bitter at his own servitude in his life. Then there are 6 others- Sichiroji, Katusushiro, Heihachi, Kyuzo, Gorobei, and Kikuchiyo.  All 7 have their own story arcs and personalities.

Where the other 2 films treat the bonding with the village as more after-thoughts that is the main story behind Seven Samurai. The villagers don’t trust the Samurai as there is a stiff class divide between the farmers and the samurai. Katsushiro faces particular struggles as he becomes involved with Shino, a farmers daughter.

You have to think of Seven Samurai more like you are binge watching a show on Netflix. It is episodic but in a good way. Nobody could endure any of the pieces for 3 hours whether battles, class struggle, romance or preparation for the bandits; however, together it all works as an amazing film. The acting is first rate and the cinematography is stunning from Kurosawa. There’s about 30 minutes that are completely in the rain, which is amazing to look at.  I found myself getting very involved with the people especially in the last hour and half.

Seven Samurai is definitely the best out of the 3 films because of its scope and characters but it is probably the least rewatchable and digestible, so it depends on what you are in the mood for.

Overall Grade A+

Next up Magnificent 7 (1960)

the-original-magnificent-sevenThe samurai has been turned into the cowboy, which makes sense given their similar place in American folklore. In this version a Mexican village is raided by bandits who threaten to return and take their harvest. The villagers meet Chris Adams played by Yul Brynner who they hire to protect their town from the bandits. He gets 6 of his buddies to help because he feels sorry for the people.

Horst Bucholz, Brad Dexter, Charlese Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn and Steve McQueen make up the rest of the Magnificent 7 and they begin to help the town be ready for the bandits to return. Each of the 7 have different insecurities and weaknesses but they do their best to train the people. In one nice moment the men realize they are eating all the food in the village so they decide to share it with the town. There is a real sense of bonding with the Mexican people and getting to know them.

Horst Bucholz’s Chico has a larger role than I was expecting- falling in love with local Petra and acting as a spy in the bandits camp. Chico find out they are nearly as desperate for food as the villagers. The two groups fight it out and it works because you have gotten to know the men like Chico and Steve McQueen’s Vin Tanner.

All of the performers are top notch in this film, which is part of the reason it works. There is nobody like Yul Brynner as far as I’m concerned and he is great here like always. You completely buy him being the leader for both the people and the 6 other men.

Some of the Mexicans can be caricatures that made me a little uncomfortable but over all an entertaining film with engaging action and performances.

Overall Grade- B

seventh-samurai2In our latest version we have director Antoine Fuqua taking a crack at the Magnificent 7 story. This version follows the 1960 film pretty closely but it amps up the violence at every turn. This new take won’t be for everyone but I found there was entertainment to be had.

Instead of a group of bandits this time we get an evil capitalist named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). Unlike the 1960 version where the bandit’s men were starving, Bogue just wants power and more land. It’s the classic big bad greedy man. He was a real snooze fest in the movie to be honest.

But to open the film Bogue burns the church to the ground and murders Haley Bennett’s husband for standing up to him. She finds Denzel Washington’s Sam Chisolm and hires him to fight against Bogue and his army. Chisolm then gathers together his crew of 6 and they begin to train the town to defend themselves.

I really liked this cast. Denzel Washington is a movie star and he shines with swagger and charisma. Chris Pratt is great. Ethan Hawke is grizzled and weary. Vincent D’Onofrio is fantastic. I loved how diverse the cast was with Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeir all playing unique roles with a lot of heart to them.

The thing that separates this film from the other two is the violence. I can’t believe it is a PG-13. There are probably 200+ men that are killed in various ways throughout the movie. We see stabbings, shootings, arrow kills, explosions, the list goes on and on. The last act of the movie is as kinetic and crazy a fight scene as anything I’ve ever seen.

I guess you either think stuff like that is fun or you don’t. I kind of did believe it or not. Plus, the stars sell it 100%. The stuff with Bogue is pretty lame and it does drag in the middle and the characters are more rote than in the other 2 versions. They are pretty much excuses for the violent action so it depends on whether you like that kind of thing or not.

Also nice to hear a lovely last score from the late James Horner.

Overall Grade- B-

Also, A Bug’s Life is definitely based on this mythology, which evidently everyone already knows but me! Learn something new every day!

Have you seen any of these films and what do you think?

Here is my youtube video

Ranking Pixar Movies

PixarlogoIt’s the moment you all have been waiting for.  I have finished reviewing the Pixar movies so that means it is time for me to rank them in order of less great to greatest.  I was hesitant to review the Pixar movies at the beginning because I love them all that I didn’t know if they would be good reading but I hope you guys have enjoyed my efforts.

Ranking is tough because honestly I have my #1 and then about a 8 car pile-up for 2nd place.  They are all so different and appeal to me in different ways.

That said, here goes!

15. Brave– I enjoy it but doesn’t deliver the movie it promises in the strong introduction.

brave2014. Cars 2– Both Cars movies are pretty close for me.  I like the energy in 2 and think the spy elements are creative.

cars2-313. Cars– A little slower than I remembered this time around.  Still a nice message about Main Street USA and lovely animation.

cars12. A Bug’s Life– A sweet little movie with a predictable story but I like the characters and it is well written.

bugs life211.  Monsters University– I love the message of Mike finding out his true calling is not his dream.  It makes Mike into one of Pixar’s most complex character.

mu210.  Monsters Inc- A delightful film with great chemistry between Sulley and Mike.  Creative world building with Monstropolis.

monsters inc29. Toy Story 2– A fun action adventure comedy for Woody, Buzz and the gang.  We get real heart with Jesse and her song.  Plus Woody must decide what he wants out of his life.

toy story2-48. Toy Story 3- Pixar’s take on a prison escape movie is full of drama and keeps you on the edge of your seat.  Humor from Barbie and Ken and a pitch perfect ending.

7. Ratatouille- A movie that makes me smile from beginning to end.  I love Remy and his desire to cook French food.  It is funny, sweet and lovely.  Paris never looked better.

ratatouille-paris-pixar-dvdbash6. Finding Nemo- Great adventure as we follow 2 storylines with Marlin looking for Nemo and Nemo in the aquarium.  Nearly every joke works and a real heart to boot.

finding nemo55. Wall-e– Starts out as a silent film following the life of a little robot left on earth.  Then we move to space and Wall-e and Eve help the humans realize their potential and get back to where they belong.  A movie that grows stronger each time I watch it.  Emotional, sweet, beautiful and bold.

walle and eva4. Incredibles– The best superhero movie.  A great film about marriage and work.  Funny, exciting with a terrific villain.  Looks great and a total delight.

incredibles103. Inside Out– I’ve seen it 3 times in theaters and every time I am more blown away.  Emotional, funny, layered adventure for both the emotions and Riley.  Bing Bong was an unexpected character and the ending is perfect

inside out52. Toy Story– When I watched for this series I was amazed at how it held up.  It’s really a story about how Woody learns to overcome his weaknesses- his jealousy, his fear.  We all fear of being forgotten and that is Woody’s fear.  It still looks good for the story and the emotion and humor hold up.  In the end it is the Pixar I have loved longest so that counts for something.

toy story11. Up– No surprise there.  You guys know it is my favorite movie.  The opening is emotional.  The journey of Carl to overcome his grief and make his devotion to his wife is touching, funny and lovely.  I love the animation and music.  It is just perfect.

up12Here’s my video I made of the ranking

Pixar Review 7- Bug’s Life

bugs life15Hey guys! I hope you all had a good Mother’s Day.  Let’s celebrate by talking about what I think is an underrated Pixar film, A Bug’s Life.  After the epicness of Toy Story Pixar’s second feature had a lot to live up too.  To add to the tension was the premiere of Dreamworks Antz that same summer which I reviewed last week.

With all of that pressure I think they came up with a charming movie with some lovely animation and nice messages for kids.  Is it perfect?  No but if it was the only Pixar movie I’d still say it was a strong effort.

A lot of people criticize Bug’s Life because it is a formula picture.  It tells a story of the oddball character who is sent on a journey where in the end he is finally shown to be special. This is an especially popular formula because of all the writers who no doubt have a similar journey.  We also get the liar reveal which we see in lots of movies.

bugs life5If all that is true then why do I say it’s underrated?  Because I think a film doesn’t necessarily have to be original to win an endorsement from me.  A movie can follow a formula but do it well and that’s great.  One of my favorite movies of all time is You’ve Got Mail and that is a total formula picture.  It works because the writing is good and the characters are easy for me to relate too.   I think you can say the same for A Bug’s Life.

bugs life 7A Bug’s Life is about a colony of ants that live by a tree surrounded by water called Ant Island.  They are a timid species and afraid of any kind of change (even the great twig of 93!).  Except for one ant named Flick voiced by Dave Foley who is an innovator and is trying to make things better.

bugs life10The ants are ruled with an iron fist by a grasshopper named Hopper voiced perfectly by Kevin Spacey.  He intimidates them to giving an ‘offering’ every year of food, so it basically works out to servitude but the ants are too scared to fight back.

bug's life3The ants have their own leadership- a queen voiced by Phyllis Diller and her daughter Princess Atta voiced by Julia Louis- Dreyfus who are both great and 2 of the more dynamic Pixar female characters we see for a long time.  We also get little princess Dot voiced by Hayden Panettiere.

Eventually Flick screws up the offering and he is sent away on a seemingly fools errand of finding bigger bugs to help defend the colony.

bugs life6Through various circumstances Flick stumbles on to a troop of circus bugs he mistakes for warriors and they return to the ant colony.  The troop is a total delight with great vocal performances and really funny writing with characters like Francis the ladybug that’s actually a dude (and voiced by Dennis Leary which is so perfect!).

bugs life 11I also love Heimlich the German caterpillar who dreams of being a beautiful butterfly ‘and then everything will be better’.  Joe Ranft, who was an animator at the time, did the voice and he gets a laugh from me every time he is on screen.

Like I said at the beginning, the story isn’t really what attracts me to A Bug’s Life.  It’s a lot of other things:

1. It’s bright and colorful.  It looks great and every scene has texture unlike the brown, brown, brown of Antz.  The soil looks like little craters and the grass looks like giant trees because we are seeing it from a bug’s perspective.

2. The voice cast is great. It runs so deep with everyone from Madaline Kahn, Bonnie Hunt, Brad Garrett, Richard Kind and more.

3.  Hopper is a terrific villain that is menacing and extremely scary from the point of view of the ants.  He also has some great sarcastic remarks.

4.  The writing all around is really good.  It elevates the more ordinary material. There are a lot of laughs and genuine moments of heart . I particularly like when Flick is trying to convince Dot that she’s just a seed using a rock.

I also really like a scene where the ant children put on a little play letting the circus bugs know what they expect.  It’s very funny.

bugslife55. The score is some of Randy Newman’s best.  I know a lot of people deride Newman but I like his cheerful style and found this to be just the right tone for the story they were telling. The finale song is also great.  One of his best.

And that’s enough for me to give it a hearty recommendation.  It’s bright colorful, sweet time at the movies.  And it’s a movie that will appeal equally to little girls and boys, which can sometimes be hard to find.

Overall I give it a B.

They ended off Bug’s Life with this very cute ‘outtakes’ segment which was kind of a thing in the 90s but I enjoy it.