Sherry McKenna and the Origins of CG

It’s easy to find information about Oddworld and its creator Lorne Lanning. It’s more difficult, to the point of being comedic, to find information about Sherry McKenna. Most places on the Internet, including the Oddworld Wiki, describe her as only the co-founder of Oddworld Inhabitants and the executive producer of the Oddworld games. If I learned anything from researching Kaena: The Prophecy though, it’s that executive producers are very important. This sent me off on a search for information about McKenna, who I suspect is a somewhat unsung hero of Oddworld. I found this interview with her on the Oddworld website recently. Among other topics, she discusses what she does as a producer to help people complete projects and her part in the beginnings of computer graphics.

Speech Therapy: The Philosophy of Antz

Transcript:

According to the box, Antz tells the story of one ant’s struggle to win the right to express himself and his individuality in a society of overwhelming conformity. By going against the grain, the protagonist Z ultimately saves the rest of his colony and leads a revolution.

A free-thinking individual can find happiness and save the world would seem to be Antz message. Z is different than everyone else. He dances differently than everyone else. He has the gall to impersonate a soldier even though it’s strictly forbidden. He survives a war while everyone else who conforms to the rules of society dies horribly. He kidnaps the princess and the worst thing that happens to him is he finds Insectopia while near everyone who goes after him for the good of the colony dies horribly. General Mandible who acts for the good of the hive mind dies horribly while Z who fights for the good of the individuals in that colony marries the princess and finds happiness.

But there was one thing about this theme that didn’t make sense. In one scene, Z and his companion Princess Bala meet two bees named Chip and Muffy. Out of the kindness of her heart, Muffy offers to find the ants something to eat… Then, she dies horribly, leaving her husband Chip to a life of depression and alcoholism. Why? Chip is against his wife’s act of charity and suggests that such an offering is unusual for a bee to do for an ant. She isn’t prescribing to the thoughts of some collective. Everyone else in the movie who dies horribly dies because they were mindlessly following orders or because they were fighting for a conformist society. Why does this strange and terrible scene exist at all?

This event reveals a deeper theme that runs through Antz: the virtue of selfishness.

Z is an incredibly selfish person even if he didn’t live a society that discouraged self-expression. The first thing we hear in the movie is Z, talking about himself. Sure, he’s in a therapy session, but other characters acknowledge his selfishness, suggesting that he’s like this all the time.

[“It’s not about you. It’s about us.”]
[“All you think about is yourself.” “Of course. Who else is going to think about me?”]
[“Think about all the things I’ve done for you.” “…I can’t think of any.”]

For most of the movie, Z is so self-absorbed that he’s even disdainful of everyone and everything else around him, even his so called friends.

[“What a bunch of losers. Mindless zombies capitulating to an oppressive system.”]

He acts on his own personal whims, feelings, and desires with little regard for the people around him. Near the beginning of the movie, Z wants to see Princess Bala, who he met at a bar and fell in love with when she secretly snuck away from the palace. He comes up with a plan to impersonate his friend Weaver even though this is extremely dangerous for Weaver. Z does get to see Princess Bala, but as soon as he’s found out, he uses Bala as a living shield and holds her hostage for his own safety. Z’s despicable behavior peaks after he escapes the anthill with Bala. When he finds out that she has no romantic feelings for him, he abandons her to the wilderness, showing absolutely no concern for her.

Bala is also a selfish person, being a spoiled princess. She’s clearly bored and even disgusted with her duties especially her engagement to General Mandible.

[“Look at the order… the precision.”]
[“Remind me why I’m marrying this guy.”]
[“What if I don’t like my place?”]
[“Labor? I’ll tell you about labor. Can you imagine giving birth every ten seconds for the rest of your life?”]

She even waves off an army of soldiers on a suicide mission with a yawn. Her selfishness also shows most once she’s outside the oppressive society of the anthill. She talks about herself as much as Z talks about himself and seems unaware of her own selfishness as she points out Z’s.

Their behavior changes after Z is trapped inside a water droplet. Bala rescues him presumably for the same reasons that she followed him as far as she did from the anthill. She needs him to survive in the scary world outside. When Z is freed, he thanks Bala and then returns to ignoring her… but then, he appeals to her selfishness to convince her to come with him to Insectopia and stop complaining.

[“Bala, look. Do you really want to be Mrs. Raving Lunatic? I promise if Insectopia doesn’t exist, I’ll take you back to the colony.”]

This appeal to selfishness occurs at several other points in the movie and each time results in the betterment of everyone involved. In order to convince Weaver to switch places with him, Z appeals to Weaver’s desire to meet sexy worker girls, which he does. When Bala and Z discover General Mandible’s plans to drown the rest of the colony, they decide to stop him instead of returning to Insectopia for personal reasons. Bala wants to stop Mandible’s plans to save her mother.

Z’s decision is based on his experience in the termite war that he unintentionally got involved in earlier in the movie. This event, particularly his experience with a soldier named Barbatus, who protected him and listened to him, deeply affected Z. He was devastated that Barbatus died having never made his own decisions. Z knows that the workers digging the tunnel towards the lake are mindlessly doing so on orders. He isn’t about to let a colony of ants die the same way that Barbatus did.

These two characters who began the movie as hateful and contemptuous have now developed complex and caring relationships with the people around them. They are both as selfish at the end of the movie as they are at the beginning. The movie ends with Z talking about himself. It was the free expression and acceptance of their selfishness that allowed them to develop into more humane people. Selfishness was suppressed or ignored by everyone, including Z and Bala, for most of the movie.

[“I’m tired… I’m hungry… Let’s go back to the colony.” “Blah, blah, blah. Take yourself back.”]
[“All you think about is yourself.”]
[“A hero? But I didn’t do anything.” “Good. I don’t like heroes.”]
[“I was born two seconds after you and ever since I’ve listened to you. What are you bitching about?”]

Under such conditions, neither of them could develop. When Bala rescued Z from the water droplet, both of them realized that they selfishly needed one another and began their transformation.

Under this lens, Antz depicts the theme of selfishness vs. selflessness. Z survives the war against the termites because he refused to fight a battle that earned him nothing. Barbatus died because he selflessly fought to protect Z and the colony. Everyone in the termite war died for the colony for nothing in return. The soldiers who followed Z died for the colony. General Mandible dies for attempting to create the perfect colony from soldiers, individuals who are so selfless that they would die for other people.

This is why Muffy died and why her husband Chip was likely doomed to a life of depression induced alcoholism. Muffy acted selflessly by offering food to ants who had nothing to offer her in return. Later, Chip helps Z by giving him a ride back to the anthill in memory of his cuddly-widdles. While Chip doesn’t die, this act of kindness occurred while he was in a state of drunken misery.

This may sound heartless… and at the same time familiar. Objectivism a philosophy described by Ayn Rand states that a man’s highest moral aim is the pursuit of his own happiness. A man should strive for a life of purpose and joy and should not sacrifice his desires for the sake of others. This is not to say that people can selfishly gain happiness by exploiting others. It is, in fact, in everyone’s own self-interest to treat others as individuals, trading value for value. Even married couples can’t expect each other to sacrifice their own happiness for their spouse’s sake. Yes, while it isn’t as obtuse as Atlas Shrugged, Antz portrays many of the qualities of this philosophy even down to its nuances.

Antz is much more than what was written on the box. Today, Antz is better remembered as that rip-off of A Bug’s Life that really should have been rated PG-13, but under its surface, it presents a fascinating, well-written, and entertaining political and philosophical commentary.

Talk at you next time!

[“Oh, Muffy, not another crusade…” “Chippy, we have a social obligation to the less fortunate.”]