Title: The Ant Bully
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy
Director: John A. Davis
Screenwriters: John A. Davis, John Nickle
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Nicolas Cage, Julia Roberts
Pixar’s sprawling Cars may be one of the summer’s biggest hits, but to the shock of many, the animation giant has been upstaged on the entertainment front — first by the remarkable Monster House and now by the more modest but very funny and diverting The Ant Bully. The anthropomorphizing insects gag is so 1998 (when Antz and A Bug’s Life both hit the screens), but The Ant Bully finds a fresh angle and produces unpretentious, Nickelodeon-style entertainment. The exponential proliferation of CGI family films has made possible the existence of computer-animated movies that are not monstrous “events,” ones that are offbeat and small and don’t have to be all things to all people.
The Ant Bully actively takes place on two scales: the microscopic ant universe and the human universe around it. The two interact in predictable ways — a phone becomes enormous and difficult to use; dragonflies become fighter planes against an evil (and gigantic) exterminator, etc — but the movie is clever and light on its feet, the jokes don’t linger self-importantly, and the collision-of-the-worlds stuff mostly works even when it doesn’t offer anything unexpected. Furthermore, the crux of the film — arrogant little boy is bullied by those bigger than him but picks on the smaller, until he is shrunk down to ant size and faced with a colony that wants revenge for having been mistreated — is the stuff of iconic children’s stories, the sort of relatable plot that can effortlessly capture kids’ imaginations, and the movie approaches it with a sense of wonder sufficient to overcome the visual humor’s familiar feel.
I’ve heard the film’s moral bluntly described as “Communist,” and while there is an anti-individualist streak in the general “working as one for the good of the colony” theme, it’s not invidious. In particular, The Ant Bully finds a nice way to integrate this message — which is really pretty arbitrary when you think about it — into the less offensive notion of not picking on those smaller than you merely because you can. It is easy to see where the film is going with this from the beginning, when our pint-sized hero Lucas is bullied by a big kid and his posse, lashes out at his parents, and then goes to take out his frustration on the ant colony in his backyard, but the idea is fairly potent, and as a framework for the film’s moral formulation, it works well.
The Ant Bully is funny, too, with a breezy sense of humor that manifests itself better verbally than visually. The film’s eminently cartoonish, lightweight nature allows for a lot of snark, and the screenplay traffics in one-liners, some of them subtler (“What are you doing out of bed, tiny Lucas?”) than others (“How was I supposed to know ants had feelings? Or families? Or trials?”). When writer-director John Davis (Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius) is forced to venture outside the realm of the verbal, he too often resorts to recycling old insect movie jokes like the delicious treat (in this case “honeydew”) that turns out to come from the anus of a distasteful creature.
I should mention that The Ant Bully to some degree works to reverse the trend of obtrusive, inappropriate casting of recognizable Hollywood stars in voice parts that should go to professionals. This is not to say that the film features actual voice actors in the lead roles, but the actors that are here — Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Paul Giamatti — do a passable job of creating convincing animated characters. Streep, in particular, appears only briefly but makes an impression.
This is unlikely to be a perennial favorite for anyone — often it plays like something one might find on daytime kids’ cable tv. But it manages to be good anyway — shorter than Cars, a little funnier, a little uglier, a little better.