Heaven is a psychic fixer-upper in What Dreams May Come, the first collaboration between visionary New Zealand director Vincent Ward and the Hollywood banality machine. This tale of love after death is visually dazzling but theologically murky. Perhaps that’s because the theology is courtesy of screenwriter Ron Bass, best known for psychobabblers like Rain Man, and Richard Matheson, a Twilight Zone veteran who wrote the novel that supplies the movie’s basis.
Chris Nielsen (a relatively restrained Robin Williams) is an impossibly warm and considerate California pediatrician, the patriarch of a family whose members have an unfortunate tendency to die in automobile crashes. What Dreams May Come is elaborately flashbacked and flashforwarded, but here’s the rough chronology: First Chris meets “soul mate” Annie (Annabella Sciorra), a painter and art restorer, on vacation in the Italian Lake District; then their children Marie and Ian (Jessica Brooks Grant and Josh Paddock) die in a collision; then Chris is crushed by a hurtling car in a separate incident; and finally the bereft Annie kills herself.
By then, Chris is already adjusting to Heaven, which he visualizes as one of Annie’s paintings, a dream house in an epic landscape complete with actual droplets of liquid paint. (The technology that visualizes this drippy nirvana ups the ante on the Van Gogh episode of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, but it must be very complicated, because the wet-pigment world soon vanishes.) Chris’ guide is his old medical mentor Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.), now young because in Heaven every creature (except Chris and Katie, the family dog) looks the way he or she desires. “The physical is the illusion,” counsels Albert, but this movie’s illusions are far more compelling than such greeting-card truths.
When he learns that Annie is dead, Chris expects to be reunited with her, but that’s deemed impossible. “Suicides go to another place,” explains Albert, who insists that this place is not Hell, just an inaccessible suburb of Heaven for people who are in unyielding denial. Yet after Albert agrees to hire a tracker (Max Von Sydow, who else?) to try to find Annie, the trip’s vistas are rather more Boschian than anything seen before. Chris and the tracker sail a stormy ocean where corpse-white figures try to capsize their vessel; they pass a burning hulk that just happens to be named Cerberus; they cross a field of gray, tormented faces. (One of themI swear to, uh, Godis Werner Herzog, whose long-touted Mexican epic could use this kind of budget.) After such an infernal buildup, Chris’s encounter with Annie’s lost soul is severely anticlimacticin large part because this is the point where Bass’ banal dialogue reasserts itself over Ward’s vivid imagery.
Ward’s previous visions of Hell include the Black Death (in The Navigator) and the World War II bombing of Dresden (in Map of the Human Heart). Here he concentrates on Heaven, with sweeping landscapes borrowed from such 19th-century Romantics as J.M.W. Turner, Frederick Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, and Caspar David Friedrich. This approach offers a credible rejoinder to those who’ve always found cinematic visions of the hereafter too mundane: What Dreams May Come’s Heaven is both grandiose and justifiably earthbound, since it reflects Chris’ consciousness rather than any objective celestial reality.
While Ward’s cosmology borrows heavily from the Prado, the Tate Gallery, and the National Museum of American Art, Bass’ owes more to the New Age section at Barnes & Noble. Hell looks like everything a goth’s black heart could desire, but it’s not to be feared. Still, the script holds to the venerable Christian view of Heaven: It’s a better place than Eartha comforting notion perhaps, but one that makes every fatal car crash a mercy killing.
Small animals, like toys that come to life, are logical protagonists for cartoons because they’re surrogates for the children who were long considered animation’s prime audience. In today’s Hollywood animation boom, though, children frequently seem beside the point. The goal is to appeal to hip parents with cross-cultural subject matter and knowing asides, leaving their kids as a sort of captive audience. (Talk about boomer arrogance: Making 6-year-olds listen to Robin Williams’ genie imitate William F. Buckley Jr. seems much crueler than forcing them to listen to “Penny Lane.”) Thus it is that the first animated feature from the consistently misfiring Dreamworks is populated by antsnot exactly up there with kittens, fawns, and bunnies on the child-proxy scaleand owes more to Metropolis and Bananas than to The Little Mermaid.
All the voice performers play to type in the computer-animated, PG-rated Antz, which opens with an uptight worker ant Z (the voice of Woody Allen) kvetching to his shrink (Paul Mazursky). Z is uncomfortable with the limited options available to a worker, but his sexy friend Azteca (Jennifer Lopez) tells him he just “thinks too much.” Z starts thinking even more when he meets Princess Bala (Sharon Stone) slumming in the worker bar. Hoping to catch her attention at a scheduled military inspection, Z changes place with his soldier-ant pal Weaver (Sylvester Stallone). But demented General Mandible (Gene Hackman), who’s Bala’s fiancé, and his adjutant Cutter (Christopher Walken) are plotting war on the termites. Rather than chatting up the princess, Z meets warrior-ant Barbatus (Danny Glover), who protects him as the troops attack the enemy in a Starship Troopers-like battle.
By accident, Z comes back a hero, and his example encourages the other workers to challenge the colony’s motto, “Nothing Satisfies Like Work,” a cross between a Pepsi slogan and Auschwitz’s brutally ironic legend, “Work Will Make You Free.” The ants discuss taking “control of the means of production” and sing, “All we are saying is give Z a chance.” The new favorite becomes re-acquainted with the princess, and Z and Bala find themselves outside the colony; there they encounter a pair of wasps (Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin) with Connecticut accentsthe kids are sure to get that oneand a series of threats out of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Z soon comes to realize that he must save the ant colony from Mandible, who plans to destroy most of the ants in pursuit of forging a “pure” race.
To recap: This kiddie flick features Freudian psychology, insect lust, Stalinism, battlefield mass slaughter, and several references to the Holocaust. That tops even The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with its own Holocaust imagery, and Mulan, whose fierce battle scenes were apparently modeled on Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky. Amid all this subtext, though, directors Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson and writers Todd Alcott, Chris Weitz, and Paul Weitz forget about the story. Antz is so dull that the prospect of Dreamworks’ parting the Red Sea (in the upcoming The Prince of Egypt) seems about as stirring as the notion of Woody Allen as an insect action hero.CP