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The Ant Bully
Well Worth the Trip to the Local Multiplex
by Mel Valentin on Jul 27, 2006
In a summer already glutted with family-oriented, computer animated films (Ice Age: The Meltdown, Over the Hedge, Cars, Monster House), the latest entry, The Ant Bully, written and directed by John A. Davis (Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius) from a book by John Nickle, may turn out to be the second or third most memorable (after Ice Age: The Meltdown and Cars). Combining quality animation (a practical given at this point), plus a well-paced, heartfelt, only occasionally didactic storyline about friendship, compassion, and community, The Ant Bully will keep kids entertained from the first frame to the last, while parents will find plenty to keep them visually engaged during The Ant Bully’s 80-minute running time.
Lucas Nickle (voiced by Zach Tyler Eisen), a friendless, harried 10-year old, finds little understanding from his immediate family. His parents (Larry Miller, Cheri Oteri) take off for a long-planned vacation, leaving Lucas in the care of his self-absorbed sister, Tiffany (Allison Mack), and his eccentric grandmother, Mommo (Lily Tomlin). Beat up, once again, by the neighborhood bully, Lucas takes out his frustrations on a nearby anthill. Lucas stomps around and on the anthill, sending the ants scurrying for cover. Changing tack, Lucas uses a water pistol to flood the anthill. Lucas barely gives the anthill a second thought before retreating to his house to play video games while avoiding his grandmother’s speech about aliens and alien invasion.
The ants in the anthill have a nickname for Lucas: the Destroyer (it’s actually “Peanut the Destroyer” after a term of endearment Lucas’ mother calls him). One wizard ant, Zoc (Nicolas Cage) decides to do something about Lucas. Thanks to a magic potion Zoc slips into Lucas’ ear while he’s asleep, Lucas shrinks down to the size of an ant. Newly awake, Lucas barely has a moment to gain his bearing before Zoc and an ant squad kidnaps Lucas and takes him back to the anthill.
At the anthill, a high council led by an elder (Ricardo Montalban) meets to decide Lucas’ fate. Hova (Julia Roberts), a particularly compassionate ant who believes in peaceful co-existence between humans and ants, argues for leniency. Zoc argues otherwise. The queen (Meryl Streep) appears to sentence Lucas to servitude until he learns what it means to be an ant. Apparently, becoming ant-like involves team-building exercises, which Lucas immediately fails. Hova argues for Lucas’ potential, Zoc remains unconvinced. Meanwhile, wasps appear on the horizon, ready to steal the ants’ herd. If that’s not enough, Stan (Paul Giamatti), a cigar-chomping, pudgy exterminator, convinces a pre-shrinkage Lucas to agree to exterminate the anthill.
Animation wise, the human characters are less than imaginatively designed and executed, but the movie's animators excelled in designing and distinguishing the different ant classes (mostly through coloring and facial markings), the ant colony, the multi-colored wasps, and the surrounding environment. Scaled down natural elements (e.g., water, frogs, insects) pose large-scale problems for the newly diminutive Lucas and almost all are rendered in eye-popping colors. And just when the backgrounds or character animations start to become familiar, The Ant Bully kicks into gear, with Lucas at the center of set-like pieces, from threading his way through his house along with his ant friends to using flower petals to ride wind (actually fan) currents, and later to the initial confrontation with the wasps and the climactic clash with the villainous Stan.
Story wise, The Ant Bully has everything children could possibly want, a strong-willed lead character, misunderstood by adults and unappreciated by his peers, a fantastical story featuring anthropomorphic ants, a richly detailed ant society (they’re builders and muralists), a colorful group of supporting characters, including Fugax (Bruce Campbell), a blustering, cowardly scout ant, and Kreela (Regina King), a brave forager ant that Fugax has his eyes on, plus ingeniously executed set pieces in and out of the anthill. Where other children’s films err on the side of didacticism, The Ant Bully thankfully doesn’t, except in the one or two obligatory scenes necessary to underscore the message of friendship and community. Kids will dig the message and parents won’t mind it too much.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
by Mel Valentin on Jul 27, 2006