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'Antz' Project Speeds From a Crawl to a Scamper

Movies: DreamWorks moves up release date of the animated feature, giving it a jump on Disney's 'A Bug's Life.'

June 25, 1998|JUDITH I. BRENNAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

DreamWorks has decided to bump up to Oct. 2 the release of its animated comedy "Antz," effectively taking a bite out of Disney's Nov. 20 Pixar release, "A Bug's Life." The change of release date (which was originally to have been March 1999) also supplants "Prince of Egypt" as the much-anticipated first animation release from DreamWorks.

Curious timing? No, both studios insist.

DreamWorks says that test screenings around the country of "Antz," which features the voice of Woody Allen as a neurotic ant, drew such positive responses that the studio decided to move the release up five months.

"The response was so strong that we looked at the early fall and saw there was really nothing to compete with in terms of adult comedy," said Terry Press, DreamWorks' head of marketing. "We thought if we could get this done in time, it was a perfect opportunity."

The $50-million production, which has been in the works for 2 1/2 years, is now in an accelerated post-production phase at the Palo Alto computer graphics company Pacific Data Images and is expected to be finished by mid-September. A rush to finish in time pushes budget costs up about 7%.

The early release also eclipses by several weeks the much-hyped opening of the serious biblical drama "Prince of Egypt," which is due Dec. 18.

"Antz" serves as a test run for DreamWorks to see how the audience will respond to its animated features--and, judging from the laughs its trailers are receiving, a more conventional, wisecracking comedic outing, rather than the ultraserious one that many in Hollywood saw as a decidedly risky venture.

"["Antz"] is a comedy with wide appeal," Press says. " 'Prince of Egypt' is bigger and has enough challenges as a well-known story, about the Bible. It's more of an inspirational story."

As for the release date's potential impact on Disney's "A Bug's Life," the first Pixar feature from Disney since the hit "Toy Story," some in Hollywood see Disney receiving a taste of its own highly competitive medicine. Last fall, Disney decided to re-release its hit "The Little Mermaid" to go head to head with 20th Century Fox's first animated movie, "Anastasia." Fox and other studios viewed Disney's move as spiteful to a new competitor (Fox) in the lucrative animation business and said "The Little Mermaid" hurt "Anastasia's" box office.

At least officially, DreamWorks denies trying to foil Disney's "A Bug's Life." Press said that past actions, perceived or otherwise, "by the Walt Disney Co. were not a factor in the decision to move 'Antz' to October. The overriding rationale was a desire to choose the best date possible, and when we looked at the fall it seemed wide open. I don't see the two movies really competing for the same audience, so there is no preempting 'A Bug's Life' just as [Paramount's] 'Deep Impact' doesn't preempt [Disney's] 'Armageddon' "--both films about asteroids threatening Earth.

A Disney spokeswoman said that there were currently no plans to move the release date of "A Bug's Life." "There are 7 1/2 weeks between these two films," she said. "Both films will benefit by the different times in the marketplace--one is fall, the other is holiday [season]."

The "Antz" move has caused some scrambling to rearrange product tie-ins. "Antz" has a Hershey's promotion, Press said, but she would not reveal details.

"I don't think a $50-billion company like Disney has anything to worry about," Press adds. "I doubt they are threatened by a few ants."

"Antz" is described as a sort of "When Harry Met Sally . . . " romantic comedy, using the voices of Allen, Sharon Stone, Sylvester Stallone, Gene Hackman and Jennifer Lopez--who play characters based on the characters they usually play in films. Allen is the neurotic drone ant Z-4195, who longs to be an individual who falls in love with the ant colony princess, Sharon Stone.

"A Bug's Life" has been described as a "Toy Story" ensemble comedy in an ant colony, in which the ants rely on the help of an out-of-work flea circus to fend off a rough group of grasshoppers who raid their food supply every year.

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