Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: there are ants in Ant-Man and the Wasp. There are ants in other things also, but only rarely as the starring characters.

I don't know if I can name another movie of such historical importance to have been made for such transparently petty reason as Antz. In 1994, Jeffrey Katzenberg, onetime Disney executive who left over a massive personal feud with CEO Michael Eisner, joined forces with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen to create a new production company, DreamWorks SKG. Given Katzenberg's role in helping to restore the gleam to Disney's fumbling animation studio, it was no surprise at all that animated movies were to be an important part of DreamWorks's portfolio, and given the enormous antipathy between him and his old boss, it was no surprise that the particular form those animated movies took typically involved the more-or-less explicit form "fuck you Disney".

After Katzenberg left Disney, he remained in contact with the Disney-adjacent folks at Pixar Animation Studios, and in 1995 had a conversation with John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton where they discussed the development of their second feature film to be distributed by Disney, an adventure movie starring ants. By the summer of 1996, DreamWorks had started work on an ant movie of its very own, speeding it through production in order to make sure that Antz beat Pixar's A Bug's Life, as it was eventually titled, to theaters in the fall of 1998. This also meant that Antz beat DreamWorks's own The Prince of Egypt, meant to be the very serious and artistically impressive debut of the company's animation wing. And so it was that the second fully CGI 3-D animated movie ever made came out, and thus was the model set that would dominate American studio animation for many long years after. For while The Prince of Egypt is unquestionably the better film, it is also the road not taken; Antz, meanwhile, is in many ways the template for Shrek, DreamWorks Animation's second 3-D feature, and Shrek is the template for a huge majority of American feature animation in the 21st Century.

Namely, it's a movie driven by the celebrities in the voice cast, some of whom don't have voices remotely distinctive enough to justify their presence. It also tries very hard to serve two very different audiences: the narrative, moral themes, and general manic pace are all aimed at children, while the humor and tone, and particularly the hefty quality of smutty single entendres are all aimed a parents. I will say this on behalf of Antz: unlike the great majority of DreamWorks's output over the next decade, it isn't filled to the brim with pop culture references that were all stone dead within five years of the film's release date. Except insofar as that the first third of the film is basically "what if Woody Allen was an ant?", and so the references were all stone dead 10 years prior to the film's release date. Or longer, as in the musical montage set to a recording of "Almost Like Being in Love" that invites us to appreciate Allen's thin, breathy singing voice. But at least there's no fucking Smash Mouth.

Anyway, what if Woody Allen was an ant? Presumably, he'd be an ant in therapy, which is exactly how the film opens (Paul Mazursky voices the unseen therapist-ant, which feels just exactly perfect), with worker ant Z-4195 kvetching about how meaningless he feels like everything is in his life. So it's a twofer: Allen-style "since we're all well aware that God is dead, what's the point" neurotic existentialism, and kiddie-film boilerplate "I have Dreams and am Special and wish to Express Myself in my suffocatingly traditionalist society". This proves to be an impossible join to hold, or maybe it's just me: hearing Allen's extremely distinctive voice wrap itself around the aphorisms from every trite children's movie from 15 years in either direction is weird as shit, and having those aphorisms rub shoulders with obviously Allen-scripted lines one-liners is weirder still.

The film is, i can say this withoutΒ  sacrificing every shred of decency as a human being, more "realistic" than A Bug's Life: not least because it presents ants with six limbs. It also pivots on the division between worker ants and soldier ants, and that's about as far as it goes. Z is a worker who longs to be a soldier, like his affable best friend Weaver (Sylvester Stallone); this intensifies after he falls in love with Bala (Sharon Stone, the one wholly anonymous voice in the cast), princess of the ant colony, slumming at a worker bar. Z and Weaver trade places and Z manages through random chance to be the sole survivor of a war between the ants and a neighboring termite colony, which leads to him being hailed as a hero; unluckily for him, this earns him the wrath of General Mandible (Gene Hackman), who staged the war as a means of wresting control of the colony from the reigning queen (Anne Bancroft). When stories of Z's success start to incite a wave of individualism in the colony, Mandible initiates a disinformation campaign against him, while pushing through a construction project that will down the colony.

Believe it or not, that's streamlined (it excludes a substantial voyage outside the colony to "Insectopia", a trash can in New York's Central Park), but it does get at some of the odd choices that Antz makes: a satire of military dictatorships that's also a children's "be proud of yourself" adventure that's also a Woody Allen comedy is trying to spin far too many plates, and they all of them come crashing down at one point or another. With 20 years of hindsight, it's apparent what lessons the company learned from this: in particular, co-director Eric Darnell's next feature, the 2005 film Madagascar, feels like a streamlined version of Antz, though almost every one of their films for years to come would copy this film's movie star-based approach to character building, culminating in 2007's awful Bee Movie, a film that asks the question "what if Jerry Seinfeld was a bee?" and thereafter does not ask one single other question.

This is all a drag, of course, but there is one respect in which I will freely tip to my hat to Antz. This was, lest we forget, just the second-ever full-length animated feature made in 3-D rendered CG, a little less than three years after Toy Story, and the first made by animation studio and effects house Pacific Data Images, one of the few competitors to Pixar Animation Studios that could hold its own with that industry leader. PDI's history quickly becomes a sad one - the company was bought outright by DreamWorks shortly before the completion of Shrek, assigned to most of DreamWorks Animation's ugliest films (most of the Shreks, all of the Madagascars), and shuttered in 2015.

But in the mid-'90s, PDI had something to prove, and you can sense their passionate desire to prove it in every corner of the film. There's no respect in which Antz doesn't look unpleasant compared to A Bug's Life, in no small part because of the very ill-judged decision to make the ants look at least somewhat realistic. Still, they're trying damn hard, and to a certain extent, it feels almost like the plot has been designed as a showcase for PDI's capabilities: pointless water scenes to show off the studio's ability to do really fine distortion effects, movement from underground to the world outside as a demonstration of the array of lighting techniques they had developed. The mere fact that this is a story about conformity in an ant colony means that there are multiple sequences of repetitive group movement. And contrary to John Lasseter's dictum that the early Pixar films would use simulated camera movement as sparingly as possible, Antz revels in sweeping the viewer's perspective around enormous spaces that seem to have been designed to maximise the impact of the movement. Much as Pixar did with its early films, the choice of location and characters also serves to avoid the limitation of CG at the time, though unlike the round cartoon ants of A Bug's Life, the angular ants in Antz are even better-suited to turn the shortcomings of the medium into strengths, without it ever being obvious that's what they're doing.

In short, while Antz is very bad, I admire it: it's the noble attempt by the doomed PDI to announce its worthiness to the world. And while it's no Pixar film it is worthy - the last PDI film that is, perhaps - and certainly an essential moment in testing whether the marketplace could withstand two major computer animation studios. Whether we'd be better off without have ever tested that is another matter.