With the deluge of CG animated movies clogging up the multiplexes it is not surprising that John (Jimmy Neutron) Davis' The Ant Bully went overlooked and slipped beneath the radar. With the likes of Ice Age 2, Monster House, Over The Hedge and Pixar's Cars hogging the limelight, this admittedly slight, and fairly juvenile romp was never really going to find much of an audience. And, much like the industrious but microscopic stars of the film itself, The Ant Bully will probably scurry unnoticed onto DVD, as well. Without the whiz-bang visuals of the powerful Pixar, or the snappy child/grownup hybrid-humour of Dreamworks, Warner's animated adaptation of John Nickle's very slight kiddie's storybook is hampered by its own lack of ambition.
“Zoc, a war with the human is impossible.”
“A wizard knows no such word!”
The basic plot has young Lucas, a victim of a local bully, himself, turning his frustrations upon the ant colony that inhabits his family garden, but learning some valuable life-affirming lessons when the ants turn the tables on him and shrink him down to their size with a magical potion. If he ever wants to return to his normal size again and be allowed to go home, the misguided youth must learn to adapt to the ways of the colony, work for the greater good and find some inner backbone to face his own tormentor. Known as the Destroyer, Lucas (voiced by Zach Tyler Eisen) stands accused of hideous crimes against the colony - the dreaded “yellow rain” being a particularly nasty attack that makes napalm seem almost welcoming by comparison - but his water-pistol flooding of their tunnels is the most spectacular. When Meryl Streep's Queen decrees that he become one of them, he falls under the protective custody of Julia Roberts' Hova and the practically ubiquitous Nicholas Cage's sorcerer-ant Zoc. Of course, events will quickly conspire to have the mismatched buddies bonding together through humour and adversity - the frog-ambush being a great sequence - and eventually, the entire colony must learn to adapt and accept the human if they are going to survive the efforts of the notorious, cigar-chomping pest-controller (Paul Giamatti) to eradicate them completely.
Yes, we've seen it all before. And done much better too, I might add. Both Antz and A Bug's Life did this sort of thing - little nature has the same issues as big nature etc, etc - with more style and wit and are still rewarding today. But The Ant Bully has no pretensions about trying to embrace the adult mindset, content merely to bumble along at its own pace and leave the smart writing for the big hitters to come up with. It doesn't try to make any bold statements that a five year old couldn't understand and, as such, does achieves exactly what it sets out to do - which is just to entertain with some neat visuals, a barrage of energetic voices (sample the likes of Bruce Campbell, Ricardo Montalban and Lilly Tomlin) and a little moral or two for good measure. So, as long you are aged no more than six or so, the film cannot fail to engage ... even if only for a disposable ninety minutes of flighty fun. My son, still only five, enjoyed the film immensely and demanded to watch it again immediately after it had finished. Now, considering that he is part of the film's target audience that makes the movie a clear winner for families looking for a blessed diversion from Monsters Inc or Toy Story ... over and over again.
It must be stated that the animation isn't on a par with the more popular CG flicks that quite rightly overshadow the film. In fact, at times, it looks pretty primitive without much of the intricacy that we have been treated to of late. Backgrounds don't possess much depth or detail and the action, although plentiful, remains steadfastly front and centre. But, rendered in simple and broad visual brushstrokes, the film is never taxing on the retina, and unfolds in a Saturday morning type of fashion that never tries anything new or daring. The animation of the characters is definitely biased more towards the insects than Lucas, or his human cohorts, and, at least here the film doesn't disappoint. Nice effort has been made to get reflections shining on the hard bodies of the ants and the individual creatures do have some cute mannerisms. I like the depiction of the honeycomb-eyes that the crawlies have and the attempts to suit-and-boot Lucas like an ant, with veritable body-armour and fly-goggles. The more exciting shots tend to be based in the underground complex of the myriad tunnels and chambers of the colony, events up top lacking much of their evocative mood and ingenuity. Thus, the best animation revolves mainly around seeing the ants swarming about the nest - fleeing from Lucas's early flooding, for example. But the climactic aerial assault that eventually sees the target being an exposed bum-crack is dealt with like a little-league attack on the Death Star trench, and is full of sight-gags and fast action, and is a rousing enough finale for anyone.
“Ugh, he's so soft ... his skeleton is on the inside!”
The big/small metaphor is pretty heavy-handed and obvious to an adult, but still a worthwhile and, indeed, necessary one for the young 'uns to take on board, with the concept of banding together to defeat a common enemy, such as a school bully, a relevant enough tactic to instil in their little minds. The broader picture of adapt to survive will be lost on kids, though, but a clever element is the depiction of even Man's smallest steps having apocalyptic consequences upon the microscopic world beneath them. Having said that, though, the neat revelations of The Ant Bully and its nature-in-harmony philosophy is unlikely to stop kids from incinerating ants with a magnifying glass on a sunny day.
Ultimately, if my own son is anything to go by, The Ant Bully is fine, if disposable, fun. The voice cast do a grand job of injecting humour and excitement into their roles and the screenplay fleshes out John Nickle's flimsy story with a commendable emphasis on action. If the film avoids repeatability then it is only because there are so many other CG-fests out there that are considerably more enjoyable, witty and intelligent. Occupying the lower rungs of the animated movie ladder may not be the most illustrious position to find itself in, but The Ant Bully is a pleasing enough diversion in its own right.
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