The Ant Bully
2006, PG, 88 min. Directed by John A. Davis. Voices by Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, Paul Giamatti, Meryl Streep, Zach Tyler Eisen, Bruce Campbell, Lily Tomlin, Cheri Oteri, Larry Miller.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 28, 2006
Consider the allure of the ant: Nowhere else can the budding entomologist decipher the physiological underpinnings of the family formicidae with such rapt attention, intuitively employing not only the more traditional methods of anatomical study, but also such kidhood staples as the magnifying glass, the power-jet watering hose, and the vulcanized Stride Rite sole. Call these pint-sized explorers ant bullies if you must, but this interspecies backyard battleground is often also the birthplace of scientific wonder. (And pipsqueak sadism, of course, but the two are frequent if uncomfortable allies in the youthful war on ignorance.) That Warner Bros. has chosen to craft an animated film around childhood's fascination with all things small and squirmy is interesting – the project is adapted from John Nickle's children's book – but it makes for a strange time at the movies. The story is both simple and worthy of an issue of EC Comics' Weird Science: Ten-year-old beanpole-cum-bully-target Lucas (Eisen), who regularly takes out his feelings of victimization on the anthill in his front yard, finds himself a part of that very colony when ant-wizard Zoc (Cage) shrinks this towering "destroyer" down to a more manageable size. Despite the colony's brief flirtation with devouring their suddenly edible arch-foe, the Ant Queen (Streep) mandates that he be trained to "become an ant," if not in leg count then certainly in spirit. This Lucas does, with commendable results and thanks in no small part to his ant "mentor," Hova (Roberts), climaxing in an airborne third-act battle with Giamatti's stogie-chomping exterminator. Director Davis has previously helmed the televised Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and is no slouch in the animation department. The Ant Bully glows with vibrant greens and violets and moves with all the resolute forward motion of, well, an ant. Unfortunately it's also seemingly arbitrary in its meanderings, with various vocal work coming in out of left field (Ricardo Montalban as the head of the ant council is more or less wasted) and a storyline that just doesn't add up to all that much we haven't seen before, or done better, and frequently both. Kids will likely dig the triumph of the little guys, geeks will convulse with knowing glee at the nod to classic sci-fi flick Them!, and adults will puzzle over the script's oddly brazen socialist politics (this is like Entomology 101 as taught by Noam Chomsky). It all adds up to a peculiar whole; fun I suppose, but not what you'd call a picnic.