Monday, July 25, 2011

Deconstructing ANTZ

A Tale of “Antz” meant more for adults than just the kiddies

Essay by Katalin Gibson

Our toddler daughter loves shows about animals big and small, so when we decided to watch the animated movie “Antz” a few nights ago, it had promised to be an entertaining evening for kiddie and a restful one for the by then worn out parents. However, after a few minutes the interest of our little one started to wane--maybe her taste refined by repeated viewings of Barney and Elmo has not prepared her for ontological monologues in the Woody Allenian vein. Mommy, on the other hand, started to be sucked into the movie as it unfolded the fable of an Orwellian ant colony. It strangely reminded me of my childhood spent behind the iron walls of communism, the old parroted slogans (“In unity is force,” “Nobody is irreplaceable”), and the workings of a society marked by overbearing state control.

Not that “Antz” is about Hungary in the 1970s and early 80s--rather, its model seems to be universal: the pattern of dictatorship. It could take place just about anywhere, from an ant colony to the Soviet Union or ancient Rome, with leaders like Mussolini or Darth Vader. The genre of “Antz” is somewhat reminiscent of Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” told from a slightly aberrant and neurotic but otherwise average ant worker’s point of view. “Z” is the classic Woody Allen from “Bananas,” just as clumsy and oddly charming, an unwitting revolutionary leader who manages to overhaul the ‘milit-ant’ leader Mandible’s burgeoning autocracy. And, as someone would expect from the hero of a tale, he becomes the new and just leader and marries Princess Leia, I mean Bala--a charming little story, where evil gets thwarted and good prevails.
So far this should be an ideal children’s story--adults have already become too cynical to believe in fairy tales anyway. In fact, it wasn’t the storyline that gained my attention, shame on me. Rather, some elements that drew provoking parallels between the everyday drudgery, the lopsided musketeer world of the ants, where all is for one but the one couldn’t care less about the many ordinary nonindividuals--and my once familiar world of communism with the Labor Day demonstrations, planned society, indoctrination and indistinct masses.

I remember being taught unwavering loyalty to the Party and their doctrine, to look at the West as the source of all evil, and to mechanically do whatever was prescribed. Divergent voices were stilled and resistance sprouted underground--another image befitting “Antz.” And, of course, this forbidden land of the West, only known from fabled accounts became our Insectopia, the land of plenty and bliss. Not many were permitted to travel, especially beyond the western borders (or, to the Soviet Union, for that matter--although I think they tried to protect the Soviets from the too liberal East Europeans in that case), and the ones who came back had tales of wonders to tell and backed their stories with 5-pound product catalogues.

Utopias are very attractive if you live in a society you find grossly lacking in perfection. You may look at stories of other lands as a proof of a real paradise. But in “Antz,” Insectopia turns out to be a garbage can: the rotting waste shared with other, jovial insects exemplifies bounty that you don’t have to work for. I guess, it would look extremely inviting if I’d had to slave in a mine every day to get my allotment of food. Otherwise, the appeal might stem from ignorance and you’ll have to be careful not to get completely lost.

Because in this new land unknown dangers lurk for the inexperienced travelers--like a piece of gum for Z and Bala, but you could also mention unemployment, menial and low paying jobs, or a lack of knowledge of the land’s culture. Maybe it is for this fear of the unknown, together with the restrictions imposed on travel (let alone the ridiculously low amount of money you were able to exchange for hard currency: $50 person for a trip--you could maybe cover the gas from it...) that most Hungarians didn’t travel much.

The workers felt safe in “Antz,” and there is something safe in your homeland, regardless of the government over you. For the average people, the monotony of everyday work and life in Hungary alternated with the occasional diversion of state-sanctioned holidays with the inevitable parades, through sunshine and rain, even in the aftermath of the Chernobyl explosion. In a strange way, this type of planned economy and society provided a source of security: things went so routinely that change would have been just as upsetting for the average worker as for the leader. The lifestyle was kind of accepted, and no one thought that things would dramatically change practically overnight. (When they did, and a more competitive type of economy was introduced, the effect came like a shock to the majority of people, who felt suddenly really lost in their newly found freedom.) And needless to say, the Antz-type instantaneous improvement in society just isn’t going to happen. I don’t know, what causes it, but while things look so simple from the average person’s stand point, when you get to be in charge, you find yourself in a huge maze of interests and conflicts, and you objectivity suddenly disappears.

Here may lay the secret of a happy ending: it is not the story that ends, but the chances of a perfectly happy resolution. Good luck to “Z” figuring out classes, just distribution, or freedom of speech in the new ant-land.

These are questions for a different genre, however. It can be refreshing to willingly “suspend our disbelief” in perfect political systems and just enjoy a little tale of little creatures, identify with the suspense of being stuck in chewing gum, and rejoice when all ends well. Maybe adults are the ones, who really need tales.

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