This post began life as an April 1st joke based entirely on the fact that when you abbreviate our four elements that make stories popular – attachment, novelty, tension, and satisfaction – they become ANTS. I thought it would be an amusing pun to compare ants movies on their ANTS and assumed that would be the end of it. But then the commenters spoke with one voice and demanded I actually rate Antz, A Bug’s Life, and Ant-Man. What I’m saying is, this is all the commenters’ fault and I can’t be held responsible for any of it.
We start with a movie that may or may not have been conceived largely as a way to sabotage Pixar’s 1998 release schedule, depending on how you interpret various quotes from the creators. Antz certainly plays like a spoof of A Bug’s Life despite releasing six weeks earlier, right down to the similar plots and jokes that are either more mature or more crass, depending on whether they land or not.
We’re not off to a great start here. Z is our protagonist, and his big thing is rebelling against the rigid system of his ant colony. That sounds like a sympathetic conflict if ever there was one, but that aspect of his character is given so little development that we have no idea why he’s unhappy with the current system, especially since no one else is. He quickly drops wanting to be different in favor of wanting to date Princess Bala based on one meeting in a bar, which is much less sympathetic. You could easily forget that Z was ever supposed to be a rebel if other characters didn’t keep insisting he’s a rebel.
Other than that, he’s a self-centered jerk who makes the occasional joke. Don’t worry, Princess Bala is also a self-centered jerk who makes the occasional joke. She seems nice at first because the film needs her to be a desirable love interest, but after that she takes on the haughty aristocrat trope because otherwise there’d be no real conflict in her relationship with Z. None of this is great for building attachment, as neither character is funny enough to make up for their jerkass personalities. The film just assumes you’ll cheer for them because they’re the main characters, then moves on.
The only other good guy with significant screen time is Weaver, and he’s pretty cool,* but it’s not nearly enough to overcome the two leads being such duds. We have a host of side characters who either do very little, die quickly, or both. Nor does Antz try to build attachment for its villain or setting the way some stories do. The bad guy is a generically evil military dude, and the setting is a regular city with ant logos slapped on everything.
Final Score: 3
For a computer-animated cartoon about ants, this movie has remarkably little novelty. The ant colony itself is purpose-built to resemble a human city as much as possible, with bars and everything, which is just not that interesting. One of the few times they don’t act like humans is when a bunch of worker ants hold hands and become a wrecking ball, something ants also don’t do, so it just feels out of place. Why don’t these anthropomorphic ants have a regular wrecking ball? They have regular versions of most other technologies!
The only time Antz actually feels like a movie about insects, rather than insect-shaped humans, is when Z and Bala venture outside the colony for their journey to Insectopia, AKA a pile of trash. This is better, especially when a kaiju-sized human walks by, nearly crushing our heroes without even noticing them. And by only showing the feet and legs, Dreamworks avoided computer animation’s many problems rendering human faces at the time, which was clever.
Unfortunately, time spent outside the colony is a sideshow to the main plot. Most of the story takes place inside the disappointingly mundane ant colony. The only place left to find novelty is in the movie’s humor, which is… mostly jokes about how real ants do things. These jokes just don’t fit with the story’s premise where ants mostly act like people. For example, Z has a sequence where he complains about how his mom didn’t give him any attention, with the punchline being that his mother is the ant queen who’s had millions of babies. Except that this movie needs you to not consider that every ant in this story has the same mother because then Z and Bala’s anthropomorphized love story is incestuous.
Most of the jokes are like that. Z doesn’t like drinking “aphid beer” because it’s gross, which just raises the question of why everyone else is okay with it. Also later why Z doesn’t think the trash he eats is gross. There are jokes about how the worker ants just mindlessly do what they’re told because they’re ants, but Z is immune to this because we need him to act like a person for the story to work. Not only are the jokes repetitive, but they also work against the story Antz is trying to tell.
Final Score: 4
Tension is Antz’s best category, but it still barely struggles into the average range. This is because for most of the plot, we have only scene-level conflicts to provide any tension, as there’s nothing coming from any of the larger plots. One of those plots is the worker ants being so inspired by Z’s supposed acts of rebellion that they question their place in ant society, but very little is at stake here. Other than Z, none of the workers are unhappy, and they treat rebellion as a passing fad more than anything else. Rather than “thinking for themselves,” as they keep saying, it feels like they’re playing a game of follow-the-leader with Z.
The other overarching plot is General Mandible’s evil plan. We don’t know exactly what he’s up to, but one thing’s clear: he’s trying to take over the colony and overthrow the queen. Only one problem: Who cares? There’s nothing to indicate that life would be worse under Mandible; it just seems to be a case of trading one autocrat for another.
As for the scene-level conflict, it’s usually decent, if not the best. The termite battle is pretty cool, and then we have a few near-death sequences as Z and Bala travel to Insectopia. Unfortunately, the later scenes trail off as they often involve Z yelling at other ants to think for themselves, when he actually wants them to do what he says. Even the better scenes are dragged down by the lack of any tension in the main arcs.
Final Score: 5
In the film’s climax, we finally learn Mandible’s true plan: wipe out all the workers and start a new colony with just soldier ants. Why would Mandible want this? The workers are a perfectly content labor class. Without them, his precious soldiers would have to do all the work, which he doesn’t seem interested in. On top of that, Mandible is stopped because his main lieutenant randomly turns against him. This guy has been all for Mandible’s plan for most of the movie, and there’s nothing to show why he would change his mind except that the movie’s almost over. Altogether, this turn of events creates no satisfaction.
The anti-authority plot likewise fizzles out, but rather than suffering from poor execution, the problem is that it’s not addressed at all. After multiple scenes about how the ants need to think for themselves, the movie ends and we get no further information. Will the caste segregation be ended? Will the workers have more say in their own affairs? Will they all stop drinking aphid beer? No one knows. Admittedly, it would be difficult to resolve this plot because it’s so muddled. Sometimes it’s about class struggle, where the workers toil for others’ benefit. Other times, it’s about the workers not being individualistic enough.
The only plot with any resolution is Z and Bala’s romance. They kiss in the falling action, and then we get a quick epilogue to tell us they’re dating. This is more than nothing, but only just barely. Bala and Z never had particularly strong chemistry, and dating her seems to be more of a status symbol for Z than a meaningful relationship. More importantly, the romance is far smaller in scope than the other two conflicts, making it feel less important.
Final Score: 3
Sandwiched between Toy Story 1 and 2, Pixar released an animated movie that’s very loosely based on The Ants & the Grasshopper.* A Bug’s Life is not one of Pixar’s better-remembered films, but it holds up surprisingly well, especially in its animation. The bright colors and simple character designs don’t feel dated at all despite advances in CGI technology, but what about the story?
We start out on a good note with Flick, a protagonist with enough problems to be sympathetic but not so many that he seems too useless to be a protagonist. That’s actually something of an achievement when it comes to white-boy protagonists, but I digress. His inventions initially cause a lot of trouble because he’s still working out the design issues, but they clearly have potential, even if the other ants don’t think so. It also helps that Flick’s primary motivation is to help others, rather than a more self-centered desire like wanting to date a princess.
There is a princess, though, this one named Atta, and she’s also decent when it comes to attachment. She’s struggling to be worthy of leading her colony, which is compelling because leading this colony means dealing with the hostile grasshoppers. If something goes wrong with the ants’ food tribute, the queen has to answer for it. This is important, since otherwise wanting to be queen wouldn’t be very selfless.
The other main characters are the circus bugs, and while none of them are particularly deep, they’re usually quite funny. That’s good for some attachment, and it would be even better if the caterpillar weren’t used to make fat jokes. The ladybug is also highly questionable, as his main thing is getting angry when people constantly assume he’s a woman. You see, it’s very funny that this male bug looks feminine. Nothing problematic about that, no sir.
Other than those problems, A Bug’s Life’s main attachment weakness is that while many of its characters are good, none of them are great. Flick and Atta are selfless and sympathetic, but they aren’t particularly memorable. The circus bugs are more memorable, but they’re a bit underdeveloped. Still, these characters all get the job done and leave you cheering for them.
Final Score: 7
Initially, A Bug’s Life suffers from many of the same problems that Antz does: it’s a story about ant-shaped* humans, but it wants to make jokes based on how actual ants behave. None of these jokes land especially well, and they make you wonder why there are so many boy ants since, to the extent that ants map onto human genders at all, they should mostly be female.
Where A Bug’s Life pulls ahead is it doesn’t spend most of its story in an ant colony that resembles a human city. In fact, we see very little of the colony. When Flick visits an insect city, it’s made of scavenged human materials, giving it a more interesting look than the bar and other locations from Antz. There’s also simply more time spent outside, which gives the movie a greater opportunity to turn mundane plants and terrain features into huge obstacles for our insect heroes.
The circus bugs also help here, especially since more of their humor relies on actual jokes rather than simply referencing insect trivia. It’s hardly the most novel film Pixar has ever produced, which is one reason it isn’t a classic like some of its peers, but it gets the job done.
Final Score: 6
This category is about as high as it can get in a kids’ movie, and the lion’s share comes from the main villain: Hopper the grasshopper. He provides the overarching threat, as the story begins with him issuing impossible demands to the ant colony. If they can’t gather enough food to satisfy his demands, he’ll wreak havoc. If they can, then they’ll starve during the winter. This is the big problem that Flick and the rest of Team Good have to solve.
In addition to being large and strong, Hopper is smart. He recognizes that the grasshoppers’ dominion over the ants is largely psychological, and that active intimidation is needed to keep it in place. While this does concede some of the bad guy’s physical threat, having an intelligent villain is well worth it. Bad guys who can think on their feet will always be threatening, because who knows what they might do next?
With the throughline’s tension firmly established, A Bug’s Life then uses its scene-level problems to provide scene-level tension, rather than depending on them to carry the whole movie like Antz does. These problems are generally quite good, like saving a young ant from a hungry bird and preparing the colony’s defenses against Hopper’s return. As an added twist, Flick needs to keep up the pretense that his circus-bug friends are actually fearsome warriors. Otherwise, the whole plan falls apart.
The main thing keeping tension down is that since this is a kids’ movie, the threat can’t ever feel too real. This is probably the right choice, as young children should be able to watch this film without getting upset. Even so, the tension is quite respectable.
Final Score: 7
The movie’s primary climax is probably the best I’ve seen in a Pixar movie, as it brings together the most important plotlines and character arcs. After a low point where all seems lost, Flick and the circus bugs rally to scare the grasshoppers off with a fake bird they’ve constructed. This almost works, but then the bird is destroyed due to an unforeseeable accident. Again, it seems like our heroes are doomed, until the rest of the colony steps in. Inspired by Flick’s heroics, they find the courage to stand up for themselves, scattering the grasshoppers and shooting Hopper out of town with a circus cannon.
This ending does a number of things at once. First, it resolves both Flick’s and Atta’s character arcs. No longer is Flick the hapless bumbler whose inventions don’t work right. He’s come into his own, creating cool new tech and demonstrating personal bravery. At the same time, Atta overcomes her difficulties with leadership, taking charge of the other ants as they claim victory on the battlefield.
Just as important, the climax resolves the throughline. Never again will the ant colony be bullied by these grasshoppers or any other rascals with similar ideas. They’ve realized their true strength, and things are clearly different now. It’s a near-perfect balance between highlighting the actions of individual protagonists and showing the importance of collective action. Stopping here, I would happily give a rating of 8 or 9.
But the movie doesn’t stop there. Instead, there’s a weird sequence where Hopper recovers and comes back for another fight with Flick. It’s hard to express how unnecessary this fight is. Flick has already stood up to Hopper. He’s had his moment of triumph; he doesn’t need a second one. It’s a textbook case of anticlimactic action, and then it ends with Hopper being brutally torn apart by baby birds. This feels overly harsh, as Hopper hasn’t actually killed anyone on Team Good.*
It’s also notable that while several of the circus bugs appear to start character arcs, none of them have any resolution. The stick bug is unhappy that he only ever gets to do jokes about being a stick, and the movie ends with him doing jokes about being a stick. The ladybug doesn’t like being mistaken for a woman, and nothing about that seems to have changed by the end. The caterpillar goes through his long-awaited metamorphosis… and emerges still a caterpillar but with a pair of tiny, nonfunctional wings. The ending is still good despite these problems, but not as good as it could have been.
Final Score: 7
Both our previous ant films released in 1998, and for 17 years, there was a tragic dearth of big-budget ant films.* Then, in 2015, another arose. As part of Marvel’s never-ending quest for ever-more-obscure white boys, Scott Lang received a blockbuster adaptation. Neither animated nor meant for kids, Ant-Man may seem like a strange addition to this list, and it definitely is. But it also features a lot of ants, which means I had to include it.
Ant-Man depends on two things to generate attachment: actor Paul Rudd’s charisma and protagonist Scott Lang’s difficult situation. The first undoubtedly works as intended; the second is less successful. It’s true that as an ex-con trying to get his life together and be there for his daughter, Scott has a lot of potential for sympathy, especially since his crime was basically being a modern-day Robin Hood. It’s also nice for a big-budget movie to mention the difficulties people face when they’re released from prison, as they’re often discriminated against long after they’ve served their sentence.
The problem with Scott is that his character is pretty nebulous. The dialogue makes it sound like he only ever committed the one crime of stealing from his unethical bosses and giving the money back to the clients they cheated. But then he seems to have the skills of a career criminal, so I guess he also did other crimes? This isn’t a good start, and it gets worse.
From there, it’s not clear why Scott is in this movie. He’s recruited by Hank Pym to steal some super tech from evil guy Darren Cross, but why Scott specifically? None of Scott’s crime skills matter, since he’s gonna use a shrink suit and ant minions to break in, not lockpicks and an angle grinder. Nor does Scott have an emotional connection to the villain or any of the other major characters. The only in-universe justification is Hank’s sexist paternalism, as he’s forbidden his daughter Hope from using the suit because it’s too dangerous. But if that’s what he cares about, he could have picked just about any warm body off the street and had just as good a candidate!
As for the secondary characters, few of them are particularly compelling. Hank is a garbage person whose arc is about becoming slightly less garbage. Hope has all the traits to be a compelling hero, but as a side character, she’s bland and underdeveloped. Scott’s ex-wife appears weirdly mean, pushing a broke Scott for child-support payments she doesn’t need and not letting him see his daughter because of his financial hardships. Honestly, this is probably fuel for the MRA talking point that child support is a misandrist conspiracy against men, but that’s a discussion for another time.
The only side characters who add any attachment are Scott’s daughter Cassie and his sidekick Luis. Cassie is cute and Luis is funny. That’s not a huge bonus, but still significant in a movie that doesn’t know why its main character is even there.
Final Score: 5
Shrinking special effects have come a long way since Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, especially when powered by the MCU’s seemingly endless production budget. As a character, Scott Lang isn’t that interesting, but his suit is very cool and refreshingly different from other Marvel heroes. At least, as different as it can be in a genre where problems are generally resolved by punching things. It’s fun to watch Scott navigate a miniature world, and it also allows for some unusual fight locations, like the inside of a briefcase or a child’s train set.
The ant control is also pretty cool, especially when Scott rides a flying ant into battle. The first problem is that ant control and shrinking tech aren’t in theme with each other, or logically linked for that matter. They’re completely unrelated pieces of tech, like if Tony Stark also drank super-soldier serum, or if Peter Parker invented web shooters separately from being bitten by a radioactive spider. Oh right, that last one also happened. Well, at least Marvel is in theme with its habit of breaking theme.
Speaking of inconsistencies, this movie cannot make up its mind about how the shrink tech works. Scott clearly gets lighter as he shrinks,* but he’s also able to punch with the same force as when he’s full size. Sometimes, shrinking means that comparatively large objects are dangerous, like when Scott throws a building block at Darren. Other times, they’re completely harmless, like five seconds later when a model train bounces off Darren without causing any damage.
Ant-Man also pulls a classic Marvel mirror-mode fight, where the villain has the same powers as the hero, but evil. This was already old in 2010 with Iron Man 2, and by the time Ant-Man was released, it had become a meme. At least Darren has a couple of extra gadgets that Scott doesn’t, but they’re very similar regardless. Still, the cool shrinking fights do the best they can.
Final Score: 6
Ant-Man’s tension starts out okay; that’s when it’s just Scott trying to get his life back together and be there for Cassie. Granted, a lot of that tension comes from Cassie’s mom being incredibly unreasonable, but I’ll take what I can get.
Then Scott gets recruited for the mission to steal Darren’s shrink tech, and tension drops like a stone. The reason? Darren doesn’t have any defenses that can deal with a shrinking attacker. His suit isn’t actually operational until the very end, so his security consists of mundane alarms and goons with sidearms, none of which are built or trained to deal with a superhero. It’s unlikely the guards would even recognize what was happening if Scott attacked.
Ant-Man is billed as a heist movie, but it’s a heist where the thieves can easily walk in and take what they want by force. The only potential problem is that Scott might not be ready in time, since he has to train with the suit, but that’s a minor concern. He hardly has to be in peak shape to steal something from guards who can’t fight back. If by some chance he’s really that unprepared, Hope can always take the suit and do it for him.
Tension doesn’t recover until the final fight, when Darren finally gets his own suit on. Somehow, he can use it perfectly without any training. Despite that, he’s at least a threat now. Unfortunately, that’s too late to rescue the rest of the movie.
Final Score: 4
In Ant-Man’s win column, we have the climactic turning point. I’ve already detailed this in another article, but the short version is that Scott has to go “subatomic” so he can save his daughter from the dastardly Darren. That means he shrinks down to a dangerously small size and then has to think of something clever to let him climb back up to normal size. It’s pretty good as MCU turning points go, and it feels like Scott deserves his win.
The big problem is that other than Cassie getting held hostage at the last second, Scott has no emotional investment in defeating Darren. Their banter makes it sound like they’re old enemies, but this is actually the first time they’ve met or interacted in any way. Hank and Hope both have emotional investment in defeating Darren, but neither of them are involved in the big showdown. Also, it’s pretty clear Darren could leave at any time, since his suit flies and Scott’s doesn’t, but instead he stays, for reasons.
Meanwhile, character arcs are either weak or nonexistent. Scott goes from committing cool crimes for the greater good to… committing cool crimes for the greater good. The only difference is that now he has the tech not to get caught. Hope and Hank are supposed to have a reconciliation over the death of Hope’s mother, but nothing really changes for them, probably because they have so few interactions afterward.
Finally, Hank gives Hope her own shrink suit right before the credits roll. This is technically better than not giving her a suit, but it’s mostly confusing. What happened to change his mind, exactly? Was it their reconciliation scene? If so, he probably should have given Hope the first suit instead. If not, I can’t see how Scott nearly dying would change his mind about the suit being too dangerous. Fortunately, you might miss all of this in the excitement of Scott’s fight, but it’s rarely a good sign when paying careful attention makes a movie worse.
Final Score: 5
And the final scores are 15 for Antz, 27 for A Bug’s Life, and 20 for Ant-Man. Apparently Pixar is just very good at making movies. Hot take, I know. Meanwhile, Ant-Man is a subpar MCU entry whose main accomplishment is to provide the Avengers with their time-travel tech in Endgame. Antz is just a bad movie. It has bland comedy, annoying characters, and a head-scratching plot. It is sad proof that having a lot of ants does not automatically mean you have a lot of ANTS.
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