A Bug's Life Vs Antz: How 1998 Gave Us Twin Ant-Centric CGI Movies Within 49 Days

While there have been myriad films based on Carlo Collodi's 1883 novel "The Adventures of Pinocchio," it's unusual that 2022 should see two of them released in such close proximity to one another. On September 8, Disney+ released a "Pinocchio" movie meant to be a direct remake of Ben Starpsteen's and Hamilton Luske's 1940 animated version. The version is directed by Robert Zemeckis, and will star Tom Hanks as Gepetto. Then, on November 25, Netflix will release a stop-motion animated version of "Pinocchio" directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson. These two films, both high-profile and made by rival studios, are now, by dint of their release schedule, going to be linked together in perpetuity. One will not be discussed without mentioning the other. 

Forgotten in the shuffle is the Russian animated film "Pinocchio: A True Story," which was released in North America back in March. 

The phenomenon of twin blockbusters is a curious one. Periodically, two studios will — for various reasons — latch onto similar projects at about the same time. Historically, common etiquette would dictate that one studio back off and let the other go ahead with their project; after all, neither studio would want to split a potential audience. Sometimes, however, that etiquette fails, and two studios charge toward each other in a bizarre game of chicken, each one hoping the other will back down. Then, when neither studio does, two versions of more-or-less the same movie hit theaters within a year of each other, creating cinematic fraternal twins. 

One of the more notable examples of this phenomenon came late in 1998, when DreamWorks released their film "Antz" less than two months before Pixar released their own "A Bug's Life." Two ant-centric CGI movies in 49 days. 


"Antz" was the debut film for the then-new DreamWorks Animation studio. DreamWorks cofounder Jeffrey Katzenberg picked up a project pitched to Disney in 1988 — "Army Ants" — and decided to use it to test out just how far computer animation could go. Keep in mind that "Toy Story," the very first CGI animated feature film, was released only a few years previous, and seeing an entire film in the medium was still a novelty. "Antz," directed by Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson, boasted one of the most impressive casts in voice acting history: Woody Allen played the lead character Z, opposite Sharon Stone, an ant princess. Also in the film were Gene Hackman, Danny Glover, Sylvester Stallone, Jennifer Lopez, Christopher Walken, and Dan Aykroyd. 

"Antz" was a dark, semi-adult film about the nature of an ant colony, and how every insect therein must fulfill their role. Z, tired of being a worker ant, elects to swap places with a friend and become a soldier ant. The film features many ant-based jokes, like how ants drink fluids out of other creatures, or how termites fend off ants by spitting acid. Z, through plot machinations, eventually absconds with the princess and the pair quest into the world to find the mythic Insectopia — in reality, an overflowing trash can. 

"Antz" was considered edgy and daring at the time, but the animation has dated terribly. The characters' facial designs are all off-putting, and the entire move is colored in unpleasant earthen browns. What's more, the film, for all its themes of conformity vs. free will, doesn't strike terribly deep. "Antz" displayed DreamWorks' animation strategy moving forward, however: make the film slightly more "adult" than the usual Disney kiddie fare, and seek out as many celebrity voice actors as possible. 

A Bug's Life

"Antz" was released on October 2. John Lasseter's "A Bug's Life" came out on November 20. 

Gentler and more kid-friendly, "A Bug's Life" — only Pixar's second feature — was a much more colorful, toyetic film with a more humorous and playful tone. The ants in "A Bug's Life" were colored a gentle lavender, and other bugs were bright green or blue. The story was also mercifully less ambitious than that of "Antz." Whereas "Antz" was a commentary on Hegelian roles, "A Bug's Life" was a mere riff on "Seven Samurai." An ant colony is at the mercy of an evil gang of grasshoppers led by Kevin Spacey. When the colony is threatened with starvation, the resourceful Flik (Dave Foley) treks out into the larger world to gather up a team of brave bug warriors to defend them. Flik accidentally mistakes a group of traveling bug circus performers for warriors, and hires them to fight. He and the circus performers must improvise a defense against the grasshoppers. 

The film is pleasant and full of puns. Generally, "A Bug's Life" is the more affable, visually pleasant film. These days, it's considered one of Pixar's lesser efforts. It also features a celebrity voice cast, although "A Bug's Life" was less aggressive in its advertising of that fact. Also appearing were Julia Louis-Dreyfus, David Hyde Pierce, Denis Leary, and Madeline Kahn. "A Bug's Life" featured almost no "adult" jokes and had no pretenses toward hipness. 

"A Bug's Life" was partly inspired by the 1934 Disney short "The Grasshopper and the Ants." 

The parallel paths

The timeline of events, which can be found in a Business Week article from 1998, found that DreamWorks had announced their ant project first, even though Pixar was already working their own ant movie. For years, however, things seemed to be copacetic between Pixar and DreamWorks, with Pixar accepting that "Antz" had been pitched at the rival studio completely independent of their own ant movie. There was, by that thinking, merely something in the water when it came to ants. It was a mere coincidence. Lasseter is even quoted in Business Week as being friends with Katzenberg after the latter spent so much time championing "Toy Story." Lasseter even sent a Mr. Potato Head to Katzenberg as a special thanks. 

Later, however, it was revealed that Katzenberg had likely deliberately tried to hamstring Pixar. Lasseter had once told Katzenberg at a meeting that he was working on an ant movie, and Katzenberg asked when it was set to come out. When Katzenberg learned it was set for November of 1998, the same time as DreamWorks' "The Prince of Egypt," he seemingly went on the defensive. Katzenberg would go on to purchase the animation studio PDI under the specific stipulation that it complete "Antz" prior to the release of "A Bug's Life." Katzenberg also reportedly called Lasseter with a dark ultimatum: DreamWorks would halt production on "Antz" if Pixar moved the release of "Bug's Life" away from "Prince of Egypt." Lasseter didn't budge. Katzenberg moved forward. The result was two ant movies at the same time. 

It's worth noting that all three films in this scenario were wildly successful. "A Bug's Life" made $163m, "Antz" made $91m, and "The Prince of Egypt" made $101m. 

American audiences, it seems, were willing to eat many, many ants.