In part 1 of this series of articles, we extensively reviewed Disney’s classic retelling of The Grasshopper and the Ants from 1934. While this may have been the definitive version, it was certainly not the last say on the subject. Included below, among other notables, are a different viewpoint on the tale, from another land, and Pixar’s own plot tweak of the Disney classic in a successful feature film.
The Grasshopper and the Ant (Lotte Reiniger, 1954) – a black and white silhouette version of the tale, produced in the United Kingdom. History behind this presumably independent production appears sketchy, but a British Film Institute version appears on the internet. Animation is quite skilled and often realistic. However, there are some drastic dissimilarities from the Disney version. For one thing, we are given only a solitary Queen ant, with no hoard of subjects. The grasshopper’s facial depiction looks decidedly more human than insect – and the relative sizes of the two characters are almost the same! The story line is considerably more bleak as well. Queen Ant is haughty and stuffy rather than merely sternly sharing wisdom. When winter comes, grasshopper can’t even get invited in the door of ant’s house to warm up a bit. Instead, she asks, “What did you do all summer?” Grasshopper replies, “I fiddled.” Ant retorts, “Well, now you can dance!” and slams the door in his face. Grasshopper withers, and is eventually found by squirrels, presumed dead. But they bring his “body” into their warm home, try administering some food, and surprisingly find him very much alive. He celebrates by breaking out his fiddle. Queen ant happens by, thinking the squirrels are having a party, only to find to her shock that grasshopper is the source of the music. The squirrels point out that he’s alive, “No thanks to you.” The Queen drops her haughtiness, finally admitting that she never realized how wonderfully the grasshopper could play while she was busy gathering food. She almost apologizes, but the grasshopper apologizes too, admitting she was right. There is a reconciliation, and grasshopper invites her inside, pointing out that now that her food gathering is over, maybe she finally has the time to join in the dance. She does so with the grasshopper and the squirrels, and the film ends on a more positive note that the two will learn to live together in friendship, or at least charitable tolerance.
Unnatural History (Warner, 11/14/59 – Abe Levitow, dir.) – In this random spot-gag reel lampooning a nature-study documentary, a lecturer (voiced by Ed Prentiss) shows us footage of various species. The first is the common ant (this time seen as a solo without a colony), which the narrator tells us teaches us lessons in thrift, industriousness, “and above all, intelligence.” The ant is shown on the ground surface, apparently laboring intensely at lifting small round morsels of food out of one anthill and dropping them into another. However, the camera pulls back to an underground cut-away view, revealing that the two anthills are connected by a tunnel – and we’ve been seeing the same morsel of food over and over again, merely rolling back to the entrance of anthill one every time it’s dropped into anthill two! The flustered lecturer clears his throat, and calls to his projectionist, “Uhh….Yes…..Next picture, please.”
In the Picnic of Time (Hanna-Barbera, Augie Doggie, The Quick Draw McGraw Show, 1959 – William Hanna/Joseph Barbera, dir., Michael Maltese, story) – Michael Maltese, moonlighting fresh from his long stint at Warner Bros., would apparently author single-handedly the entire output of Augie Doggie and Snooper and Blabber cartoons for “The Quick Draw McGraw Show” – as well as stray episodes for Quick Draw himself. (Doggie Daddy could turn a line of dialog from this cartoon into a comment on Maltese – “What an imagination that boy has!”) In this direct descendant from “Beach Picnic”, “The Fighting 69½th”, etc. (and also giving a nod to Spike and Tyke’s “Pup On a Picnic”), Maltese enlists his ants in a new branch of the services – the U.S. Cavalry, complete with bugle calls, a division flag held by a lead “rider”, and a commander who sounds the “Charge” when Doggie Daddy picks on a scout ant by hitting him with a fly swatter to prevent him from making off with a slice of cake (not realizing that Augie gave him the treat). The ants declare war as in “Ant Pasted”, and also reprise the traveling string of hot-dogs gag from “Beach Picnic” and “Tea For Two Hundred” in making off with the picnic lunch. (Doggie Daddy holds on “doggedly” to the last weiner, adding a new dialog twist – “How do you like that. One dog hanging on to a string of dogs!”)
The chase proceeds up the inside of a tree trunk and out over a series of tree limbs (predicting a similar sequence used shortly thereafter for the opening credits of “The Yogi Bear Show”), back down the tree trunk, and is finally climaxed by another group of ants running into the tree with a pie, up to a limb at Doggie Daddy’s eye level, and smack into his face. Another gag uses matching action – while Doggie Daddy watches helplessly as several ants carry a watermelon up the side of a tree, he spots a lone ant carrying an apple. Lifting the apple from the ant’s shoulders, he proceeds to drop it onto the ant, clobbering him. “That’s one down and only a million to go”, comments Daddy. But he’s forgotten that the first group of ants has him in the same position – down falls the watermelon, clobbering him! Daddy offers surrender terms – and Augie (already waiting with a ready white flag), replies “Okay, dear dad – – who knows when he’s beat!” The commander ant communicates to Augie as translator: “He accepts your apology. Just don’t let it happen again!’
The animated incarnation of Bob Clampett’s Beany and Cecil would provide a memorable cameo for our picnic pals in “Invasion of Earth By Robots”. The space robots in question turn out to be a happy domestic pair – a “mother ship” female named “Venus the Meanest”, and a baby robot names “Venice the Menace” (both play-on-words on Hank Ketcham’s “Dennis the Menace” comic). Their only mission in coming to Earth is to find a nice quiet place to have a picnic. Not being sure what they may find on the planet, they come prepared to make the picnic (of all metal food) complete, by supplying a jar of robot ants. The ants perform and sing a military march in sped-up “chipmunk” voices set to the tune of “The Children’s Marching Song (Knick Knack Paddy Whack)”, recently featured in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), delivering all their lyrics in comic-strip style dialog balloons (“Robot Ants, Robot Ants…We’re the ants in your plants”). The bit obviously stuck in people’s memories, as Clampett would reuse the animation in a later “cheater” episode, “Nya Ha Ha”, presenting the robot ants as nominees at the Granny awards.
Carmen Get It (MGM/Rembrandt Films, Tom & Jerry, 12/21/62 – Gene Deitch, dir.) – Gene Deitch’s only return of Tom & Jerry to the concert stage – a sort of low-budget “The Cat Concerto” or “Tom and Jerry In the Hollywood Bowl”, but with Tom actually preoccupied with chasing Jerry rather than being the intended concert performer. Set at a performance of the opera Carmen, the film features a clever (if not exactly plausible) use for a trail of ants which Jerry discovers invading a musician’s open lunchbox in the orchestra pit. Grabbing a flute, Jerry begins playing, having a hypnotic “Pied Piper” effect on the ants, who follow him in marching formation up to the conductor’s podium.
Opening a blank sheet within the music score book, Jerry leads the ants up into the conductor’s book and onto the blank page – where the ants align themselves so that they look like musical notes on the paper. Then Jerry attracts Tom. Tom leaps onto the podium, but before he can pounce on Jerry, a spotlight shines doown on him, and the audience applauds – thinking he is the returning conductor. Tom sheepishly grins to his “public”, and figures he has to go through with it, so picks up the baton. The orchestra begins familiar strains of instrumental themes from the opera. But Jerry appears inside the light fixture above the music sheets, and gives the ants a signal. They suddenly change position entirely. Tom now finds himself conducting the old march, “American Patrol”. (Interesting how the orchestra knows what his sheet music is showing – do all their score books have a similar flock of ants changing positions?).
At another signal, and another, and another, a harried and confused Tom finds himself conducting “Yankee Doodle”, “Dixie”, and “There’ll Be a Hot Time In the Old Town Tonight”, until the ants randomly start to crawl off the music sheet, breaking down the performance entirely. For an added touch, at the end of the cartoon, Jerry is seen on the podium conducting while the real maestro chases Tom like a bull on the stage, and several of the ants reappear on the music sheet and position themselves to spell the words “The End”.
Hey, There, It’s Yogi Bear (Hanna-Barbera/Columbia, 6/3/64) – Possibly the first instance of a TV animated star crashing the big screen for a feature-length epic (to again be attempted by Hanna-Barbera a few years later with less successful results in “The Man Called Flintstone”). In an early sequence, Yogi, in his usual pursuit of picnic goodies, resorts to a tin can full of specially-trained picnic ants to do his work for him, while he and Boo Boo remain “innocent bystanders”.
In standard fashion, the ants perform a military march toward the picnic grounds, returning to Yogi across a log with a sandwich, thermos, mustard bottle, apple, banana, chocolate cake (which is separated into slices to cross the log single-file), and a hamburger (followed by a lone ant with a mustard slice, to whom the hamburger ants toss a sign, borrowing Freleng’s traditional “Hold the Onions” gag from “The Fighting 69½th”. The ants return to Yogi, who commands them, “At ease.” However, Ranger Smith appears from behind a tree and takes command: “To the rear, on the double, MARCH!”, and sends the ants and the picnic food retreating.
For some reason, the original 1964 trailers/promotional spots for this film (which at the time was heavily-plugged, including spawning a 7″ giveaway mini-LP available by mail from Kellogg’s with the original cast), appear to be unavailable on the internet. However, I personally recall portions of this brief sequence being used in the trailers both theatrically and on television, in a gag boast of featuring “A cast of Jillions”.
Atom Ant (Hanna-Barbera, TV series, 1965). While no ant ever held regular starring bill before on the big screen, H-B decided it was time one lit up a screen more his size. Thus, the first television star of the species. Packaged to permit the show to be a self-standing half-hour, the show was in actuality originally aired on NBC as if part of a package – “The Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel Show”, coupling two back-to back Hanna-Barbera half-hours. So who’s to complain? (The timing of this pairing was a little inconvenient for my tastes as a kid – I usually slept late on Saturdays, so I generally missed entirely the Atom Ant portion of the program, and tuned in when the “Secret Squirrel” leaders began.) Atom (voiced by Sid Caesar show veteran Howard Morris – also the voice of Jet Screamer, Nimbus the Great, Mr. Peebles, Mushmouse, Wierdly Gruesome, TV Alice-In-Wonderland’s White Rabbit, and many other recurring Hanna-Barbera characters) is heavily influenced in development by the then-current President’s Council on Physical Fitness.
Playing on the ability of an ant to lift objects many times its size, Atom was a superhero who had developed strength of astronomical proportions – apparently from mere following of a strict regimen of healthy living and regular exercise (his favorite is lifting barbells), rather than from the effects of an earth sun, a super energy pill, an XYZ-3 bone, a spider bite, a super-goober, a luminous lantern, or any other traditional superhero ace-in-the-hole. He does have one weakness, which he shares with Yogi Bear – picnic lunches – which periodically result in brief distractions from his ultimate goals. The show (also including companion cartoons of snickering Precious Pupp and the entertaining Hillbilly Bears) enjoyed reasonable success for a few seasons of Saturdays, but did not see much life in local station resyndication. Stray episodes were dropped into various Hanna-Barbera “grab-bag” half-hour compilations of miscellaneous second-string cartoons. Its primary rebirth was with the advent of Boomerang from Cartoon Network, where it often held an hour timeslot on a regular basis without the need for Secret Squirrel’s support. All in all, a respectable revelation that the species could serve as more than a mere supporting player.
The Ant and the Aardvark (DePatie – Freleng/UA, 3/5/69 – Friz Freleng, dir.), launched a 17 episode series for the studio’s theatrical output – the second series ever to star an ant, and the only one given theatrical run. The ant (voiced in impersonation of laid-back Dean Martin) is sometimes seen with the company of his swarm, but often in solo. His adversary, a blue aardvark (voiced in impersonation of additional rat-pack member and later late-night host Joey Bishop), provides an interesting throwback to Fleischer’s “Ants in the Plants”, borrowing from said film’s previous aardvark the power of a vacuum nose rather than a sticky tongue. But unlike Fleischer’s character, Freleng’s aardvark has no separate mouth from which to speak – and speaks through the elongated end of his snout, permitting some funny sight-gag exaggerations and multiple opportunities for the aardvark to be trapped in some situation where the only part of him visible is his mouth, to deliver some sarcastically-funny curtain line. The series burns out about every form of chase and pursuit gag imaginable in its one-season run, but surprisingly rarely feels tiresome, and was a treat everyone generally looked forward to as the middle element between Pink Panther cartoons on the old NBC show.
Garfield and Friends, the CBS Saturday morning series, would produce two cleverly-scripted field days for our swarming food moochers – “The Picnic Panic”, and the following season, a sequel, “Another Ant Episode”. Both shorts are told entirely in rhyme and music, featuring an ant song nearly as infectious to the brain as the “Robt Ants” bit from Beany and Cecil. The first involves invasion of a traditional picnic, with Garfield left to take the blame for the missing lunch although he actually kept his promise and didn’t eat it himself. At the end of this gag-loaded film, Garfield realizes the ants have a good thing going, and if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! So he becomes a member of the food line as an honorary ant. In the sequel, the ants (according to their song, by popular demand) return to invade Jon’s home, cleaning out the kitchen. All efforts by Jon and Garfield fail to evict them – so Jon hires an exterminator. His secret weapon is a robotic monster of his own creation, armed with blaster guns.
Garfield notices his speed control is set on low, and, figuring the ants are tough customers, boosts the lever up. The contraption goes haywire, and catches Garfield on its controls for an unwilling “bumpy ride”. The one thing the robot is successful in doing is briefly stopping the ants’ song at last, as they decide it’s time to split. However, he laser blasts the refrigerator, the kitchen, and finally the whole house into rubble. The exterminator submits his bill, and sensibly departs. But Jon and Garfield look on the bright side. One can of cat food has miraculously survived for Garfield. And Jon looks forward to a life with no more ants. Suddenly, that tune starts up again, and ants march by with the taunting refrain that they’ll be back when the house is rebuilt, with the hope of appearing in a third ant episode! Each of these episodes appears quite highly budgeted for a TV production, with extensive group shots and multiple layers of action, rapid-fire film editing, sight gags galore, and appears to have taken a good deal of planning to produce. The quality puts “Carmen Get It” and “Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear”, among others, to shame, such that these shorts would probably have been received well had they ever been given a theatrical booking.
Not so long ago, our diminutive friends graduated to star billing in feature films, all in CGI format. Antz (Dreamworks, 10/2/1998), the first full-length computer-generated feature from the studio, was presumably rushed into production in competition with an up-and-coming newcomer (Pixar) fresh off the success of its first major blockbuster (Toy Story), who had also announced production of what by its title alone may have seemed a surprisingly similar theme to the Dreamworks’ project: “A Bug’s Life” (11/14/98). In reality, however, the two products are almost as different as “day and night” (no reference intended to the Pixar short of the same name from several years later).
“Antz” really takes its title as a shortening of “Ant Z” – the nickname (in place of a serial number) of a militarized and oppressed worker ant, voiced by and styled completely in the personality of Woody Allen. The Dreamworks picture is decidedly satiric in nature, presenting an adult-themed social commentary and lampooning of military dictatorships, communism, and what-have-you. Woody, in the middle of a colony where your life is chosen for you and your role set in stone for the duration of your existence, longs to be something other than a lowly worker. In contrast to his dead-end life, he envies the large, muscular soldier ants, who get the privilege of venturing into the open on their military forays – and also are impressive to the ladies. He befriends a husky specimen (voiced by Sylvester Stallone), and talks him into changing places – not realizing that the colony is about to be ordered to war with a termite colony by their power-hungry General Mandible (a first step of a larger master plan to overthrow the queen and take over the colony). The situations get complicated, as Z winds up (not through bravado, mind you) being the sole survivor of the battle, and hailed as a war hero – only to later in the developments be branded a most-wanted fugitive and enemy of the state. Somehow, everything eventually works out, and Z’s efforts really save the colony from Mandible – not to mention some of his ideas for social restructuring getting adopted. As Woody put it for the curtain line, “There you have it, your average ‘boy meets girl, boy likes girl, boy changes underlying social order’ story.”
For all its effort, “Antz” falls far short of the quality of the Pixar product. Graphics at times seem jumpy, and images often develop a disturbing blurriness (signs of racing the film through production to get a jump on Pixar’s release date). Character designs (actually using six legs) are surprisingly same-ish and generally unappealing. The ants are depicted in depressing shares of yellow/brownishness while the subsequent Pixar release boasts a broad rainbow pallette. And some scenes are downright disturbing – like the oddball touch of Z thinking he has discovered his division commander to be another survivor of the war – only to find he’s conversing with a decapitated head, leaving him to nervously attempt to give the soldier reassurance as his eyes dart around the battlefield (“Don’t worry. It’s gotta be around here somewhere!”). But in all fairness, the film does offer some reasonable entertainment value for a more sophisticated audience. Perhaps its funniest moment is a worker recreation “break”, where the workers stand in formation like mass troop calisthenics, and are expected to dance to an offkey rendition of “Guantanamera” punctuated with dirge-like drumbeats from a slave drum that belongs below decks on a Roman rowing galley.
A Bugs’ Life, in contrast, offers a more positive and, to a great degree, more children-friendly storyline. First, while its central characters are again ants, it does not limit itself to one or two species, and manages to include a myriad of other critters of the insect world in supporting roles. It’s character designs (with the exception of its villainous grasshoppers) are appealing and for the most part “cute as a bug” (notably returning ant design to the toony 4-legged variety). While there is also a bit of social change brought about by inventor and independent thinker Flik, the writers do not beat you over the head with overt satire or questions of political doctrinism. The dramatic sides of the story (a twist on “The Grasshopper and the Ants” by making the grasshoppers menacing, demanding annual tribute from the ants of nearly their entire year’s food supply) are well-balanced by the comedic angles of Flik seeking the services of “bigger bugs” to thwart the grasshopper domination – only to inadvertently hire the cast of P. T. Flea’s insect circus – a misfit troupe who wouldn’t know how to battle if they could even spell it (in a liberal plot nod to Steve Martin’s “The Three Amigos” (1986) and other predecessors). The finale seems bigger, the gag lines more memorable, and everything about the production just rings “superior” to the Dreamworks effort, such that, while the Woody Allen film did a reasonable degree of box office and was only a month past in people’s memories when “Bug’s’ Life “ premiered, the Allen film was quickly forgotten, and relegated to discount video racks. “Bug’s Life”, however, has maintained continuous video sales, and seems generally regarded as a minor classic.
I believe it also hurt “Antz” that Pixar cleverly began its media blitz in the midst of the initial promotion for “Antz”, despite its premiere date being a further month away. I recall a Pasadena location of Tower Records having in its lobby a promotional giant inflatable of a typical specimen from the “Antz” cast as the film premiered. However, despite my overall interest in animation even in my youth, I was struck by the unattractiveness of the character, and, recalling the advance Pixar trailers I had seen, decided it was better to save my then-meager finances for a ticket when the Pixar film opened rather than to spread my budget thin on an additional ticket to “Antz”. No doubt, others felt that way, too, and viewed Dreamworks as just an intruding interloper trying to cash in on a bandwagon – which in some respects it was.
The Ant Bully (Warner, 7/28/06), presents a third instance where ants take center feature stage. Character designs in this one are more colorful than “Antz”, but nowhere near as appealing as Pixar’s rainbow world. These ants (featuring an accurate six legs) are a little too spindly and other worldly to be considered lovable, and the personalities and story-line seem to have played better on first screening in the original theatrical run than they do on rewatching. Plot centers on a boy, routinely picked on by school bullies, who takes his frustrations out by employing the same bullying tactics he receives on a large anthill in his front yard. The ants (as in “Ant Pasted”) seek a solution to stop these “unwarranted attacks”. A young male ant, deeming himself a self-proclaimed wizard, comes up with a potion of ingredients to shrink the boy (whom they call “The Destroyer”) down to their size. The shrinking scene was originally unusually handled, in that the boy’s clothes don’t shrink – so a large number of scenes were played entirely in the nude. A later version of the film “sanitizes” most of these scenes by having the boy retain shorts.
However, the queen ant, instead of sentencing him to punishment, torture, or death, proposes he be made an example of to be taught the ways of the ant, and take back to his own kind an understanding of same so that there will be peace. Training programs include an obstacle course to bring back a “sweet rock” – which turns out to be a fallen “Jelly Belly” jelly bean in the front yard (in a flagrant but reasonably clever example of product placement – later versions of the film also excise the “Jelly Belly” logo from the bean). Ultimately, the boy joins in a battle to save the anthill from an exterminator, who the boy signed the contracts to hire to obliterate the colony before he was shrunken to ant-size. He becomes a hero, receives the potion antidote – and ultimately develops the self-confidence to face his own bullies and end their harassment. And he maintains a true friendship with the ants by providing them all the jellybeans they can handle.
The film was a box-office disappointment, barely breaking even. (Warner feature animation often in its early days seemed to enter the field with two strikes against it in the eyes of the audience – those strikes being, it was not Pixar, and it was not Dreamworks.). Despite its faults, the film had some quality, and probably deserved better. It was no solution to actual school bullying – but it was a reasonable entertainment on a hot summer afternoon.
The trail is ended. The last ant is descending into the anthill. And I still managed to keep one sandwich in my pocket untouched. Woo Hoo!