Ouch! That Stings!

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The world premiere here of "Antz"--a gala screening and party complete with red carpets and oversized martinis--marked the grand finale of the 23rd Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday night. But it was just the start of what is shaping up to be a cutthroat and unusually personal battle of the cinematic bugs.

DreamWorks SKG's computer-animated satire about an ant who wants to be his own man features the voices of Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman and Sylvester Stallone. It opens in theaters Oct. 2, eight weeks before Disney/Pixar's "A Bug's Life," a computer-animated comedy, with its own crop of celebrity voices, about an ant colony that relies on a flea circus to help fend off a greedy band of grasshoppers.

The similar subjects of the two creepy-crawly movies, the proximity of their release dates and the preexisting rivalry between Disney and DreamWorks has turned what might have been a standard competition into a particularly venomous one. Oh, and did anyone mention egos?

In recent weeks, Pixar Animation's Steve Jobs and John Lasseter, the director of Pixar's 1995 mega-hit "Toy Story," have gone on the offensive, claiming that DreamWorks stole their idea. They say they pitched the animated-bug concept to Disney before Jeffrey Katzenberg left the studio in 1994.

"The bad guys rarely win," Jobs said in a telephone interview from Pixar's Northern California headquarters, repeating allegations made in several recent publications that once Katzenberg co-founded DreamWorks, he swiped Pixar's bug idea--presumably to get revenge on Disney CEO Michael Eisner.

Katzenberg says that's bunk. So does Nina Jacobson, a formerDreamWorks executive (now employed by Disney), who says she pitched Katzenberg the idea on her own. DreamWorks' chief marketing executive, Terry Press, says Pixar is just smarting because "Antz"--which originally was scheduled to debut in March 1999--has managed to beat "A Bug's Life" into theaters.

"Steve Jobs should take a pill," she said. "He looks ridiculous." The sniping does not end there. Last week, new allegations arose that Katzenberg had offered to scuttle "Antz" if the Pixar folks could only convince Eisner not to release "A Bug's Life" during the holiday 1998 season, the date that Katzenberg's favorite project, DreamWorks' animated biblical epic "Prince of Egypt," is due to hit theaters.

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DreamWorks sources flatly denied the charges. Moreover, their timing (just days before the "Antz" premiere) and the fact that no one would make them on the record made more than one journalist steer clear of the story. But over the weekend, as Katzenberg, Press and dozens of other DreamWorks honchos arrived in Canada to unveil the young studio's first animated feature, word came that both Time and Newsweek magazines were running the allegations in today's editions.

None of this dampened the reception "Antz" received Saturday. At a spirited news conference, several of the actors whose voices are featured in the film talked good-naturedly about what it was like to see themselves in cartoon form. "The [animators] are wrong. I don't move like that," said Danny Glover, whose character, a sweet-hearted soldier named Barbatus, is clearly modeled on the likable actor.

Christopher Walken, who plays the stern-faced Colonel Cutter, said, "I recognized everybody but me." Lamented Dan Aykroyd, who plays a very WASP-y wasp named Chip: "I thought they got the length of my stinger too short." Later, at the premiere, a packed house of several hundred hooted and clapped throughout the film, which festival director Piers Handling lauded for "pushing the boundaries" of animation. But after the screening, as Katzenberg nibbled on spring rolls at DreamWorks' invitation-only party at the swank restaurant Monsoon, he looked weary, as if the controversy had taken a toll.

"I have a suggestion for Steve Jobs: 'Think different,' " he said pointedly, mimicking the Apple computer slogan. A lot is at stake besides personal reputations and pride. For DreamWorks, "Antz" is the first foray into the lucrative arena of animation that's been virtually controlled by Disney for the past decade. Katzenberg has said he hopes to release seven animated films by 2002, and the success or failure of "Antz" and "Prince of Egypt" (opening Dec. 18) is widely perceived to be an indicator for whether that dream will be achieved.

For Disney there are profits to protect, and the studio has proved itself a fierce protector. Last year, for example, a week before 20th Century Fox released its first home-grown animated feature, "Anastasia," Disney reissued its popular 1989 hit "The Little Mermaid" as a preemptive strike.

For Pixar, whose "Toy Story" was the first ever fully computer-animated feature film, the goals are a little more abstract. Jobs badly wants to develop Pixar's name recognition as a brand, and has negotiated with Disney to make sure that Pixar will get equal billing on the film, the home video and all merchandise.

"When 'A Bug's Life' premieres this November," Jobs promised in Pixar's recent annual report, "audiences will know that Pixar created the film."

What does this all mean for moviegoers? If you believe the movie-makers, the rivalry has had a positive result: better animation. Both bug films seek to make up for their thematic similarities by offering a variety of visual delights made possible by the development of proprietary technology.

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Pacific Data Images, the Palo Alto computer graphics company that created "Antz," claims to have taken facial animation to a new level. In the past, facial expressions were created using "morph targets"--meaning that animators pre-built certain expressions (happy, sad, angry) and then segued among them.

With PDI's new technology, which replicated the intricate anatomy of the face, "Antz" co-director Tim Johnson said more subtle movements and ranges of emotion were possible.

"Imagine a marionette, but instead of one string for the mouth and one for the eye, there were 200 lines attached to the face," Johnson said. "We wanted to make sure that Z [Allen's character] could say, 'I don't need you,' but that his face would say he didn't mean it."

Pixar, meanwhile, has made its own strides toward depicting more life-like expressions with something it calls "subdivision surface technology," developed for use in its Oscar-winning short film "Geri's Game." For "A Bug's Life" it also invented new methods of lighting, since much of the film takes place outdoors under a luminous canopy of vegetation.

After seeing "Antz," some industry observers wondered if the movie as a whole will be beyond the understanding of a group that has traditionally been animation's core audience: young children. To grasp the movie's humor--which DreamWorks says is aimed at more mature audiences (ages 8 and up)--one must be familiar not only with the jargon of psychoanalysis (Allen's character, Z, yearns to get "in touch with my inner maggot"), but with subjects such as erotic fantasies, post-traumatic stress syndrome and class conflict.

"It's the workers who control the means of production," one worker ant is heard to proclaim at one point, while another derides his foreman by saying, "Buzz off, pawn of the oppressor." Pixar's "A Bug's Life," by contrast, emulates the Disney model for animated films, which inserts sophisticated humor around the edges, but aims to be accessible to all ages. Sources say executives at Disney are pleased with the film, but wish that Jobs would also emulate another Disney tradition: keeping mum about the competition.

Disney executives have been notably chivalrous about "Antz." According to one source, Jobs has been asked to follow their example, but with little success. (Even Pixar's spokesperson explained that, "Disney's policy is no comment, no controversy. But that hasn't stopped Jobs from talking to reporters.")

Disney spokeswoman Terry Curtin said she is confident that eight weeks is enough of a buffer between the two bug films to give both a fair chance. By then, she said, Paramount's "Rugrats" and Universal's "Babe: Pig in the City," which opens alongside "A Bug's Life" around Thanksgiving, will likely be more of an issue than "Antz." "As with 'Deep Impact' and 'Armageddon,' both can make money. And 'Rob Roy' and 'Braveheart' showed that being first isn't always the best thing," Curtin said. "Our hope is that everybody wins."

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