Placed next two "Cars
" or "Monster House
" (the two best CG-animated features of the summer), "The Ant Bully" doesn't stack up. A family pic that fails to evoke any strong emotions in the viewersit's not particularly funny, or dramatic, or excitingthe film is destined to meet audiences (and the box-office) with a comparative thud against the flashier and generally better heavy hitters of the genre. The plotting is incidental to the point of practical nonexistence, following a path that copies too much off of 1989's live-action "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids;" the characters would be interchangeable faces and personalities if not for the familiar voice talents in the roles; and the pacing is lethargic. Even the animation, which is meticulously designed, looks muddier and more unappealing that it should.
Lucas Nickle (voiced by Zach Tyler Eisen) is an unhappy young boy, picked upon by the town bully (Myles Jeffrey) and grumpy toward his doting parents (Cheri Oteri, Larry Miller) as an aftereffect. His careless nature carries over in the way he treats a busy ant hill in his front yard, spraying it with a hose and putting into danger the whole colony, including the nurturing Hova (Julia Roberts) and wannabe inventor Zoc (Nicolas Cage). When the ants have had enough of Lucas' insect torture, they spray him with a magical concoction that shrinks him to their miniscule size. Instructed by the Queen Ant (Meryl Streep) to carry out the hard labor of the insect colony, Lucas is taken under the wing of Hova and shown exactly what it is means to be a lowly, hard-working ant.
Written and directed by John A. Davis (2001's "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius
"), "The Ant Bully" has one thing going for it: an acute and imaginative fictional viewpoint of what an ant's life consists of. Since the film's conflicts are insignificantwatch as Lucas and his new bug friends fight off a nasty wasp! Watch as they get revenge on a scummy exterminator (Paul Giamatti)!and its overall story lacking thunder, it is the little details in Davis' script that keep things marginally interesting. For one, an ant is portrayed as akin to a more honorable version of a human being, their existence relying on community and selflessness to get ahead, rather than an "every-many-for-himself" motto. When not gathering food and fighting off intruders, the ants worship an ancient Christ-like ant and fear the dark mythology of a Satan-like creature. "We can't be sure that he really exists," Hova tells Lucas while showing him around their underground world, "but he does help to keep everyone in line." As Lucas befriends Hova, Zok and the rest of the ants, they help him to appreciate his loved ones and recognize the value in giving. This well-intentioned moral is carried out with a minimum of schmaltz, but it isn't supported by dynamic characters or memorable goings-on.
None other than Julia Roberts (2004's "Ocean's Twelve
") voices the role of Hova, adding warmth and spirit to the film's only notably strong character. The respectful rapport and ultimate friendship she shares with Lucas is the nice center for an expendable animated effort that makes one long for the substantive ingenuity of Pixar. Many of the other well-known actors' voices are recognizable, like Nicolas Cage (2005's "The Weather Man
") as Zoc, Regina King (2005's "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous
") as ant sidekick Kreela, and Lily Tomlin (2006's "A Prairie Home Companion
") as Lucas' conspiracy theorist grandmother Mommo, but their characters aren't satisfactorily developed. Other performers are even worse off, with Meryl Streep (2006's "The Devil Wears Prada
") in a stiff, boring two-scene cameo reminiscent of the embarrassing turn by Frances McDormand in 2005's "Aeon Flux
," and Cheri Oteri (2003's "Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd
") squandered as Lucas' caring mom.
"The Ant Bully" bucks the trend of including a single pop-culture reference, and should be commended. For what it's worth, 2004's "Shark Tale
" was possibly the most excruciating recent offender of this, what with its whorish product placement and Christina Aguilera's animated likeness belting out a terrible cover version of "Car Wash." By comparison, "The Ant Bully" is pleasant, but not dynamic, it's old-fashioned feel and narrative deficiencies bound to leave most audiences (kids and adults alike) cold. There isn't a hint of irony or laid-back fun in what writer-director John A. Davis has brought to the project, his bland earnestness finally choking the joy out of watching it.