The Ant Bully, directed by John A. Davis and based on a book by John Nickle, is the latest computer-animated plea for interspecies understanding. Like Over the Hedge, it asks us to consider that creatures we regard as pests might be people too, or at least that they might speak in the voices of movie stars. Those tiny, six-legged marauders raiding your child's backyard birthday party — what if they were really Nicolas Cage and Julia Roberts? And what if their queen was none other than Meryl Streep? Would you still stomp them, squish them or scorch them with a magnifying glass?
Your answers will remain confidential. In the meantime, while we anticipate the inevitable kiddie-animation extravaganza featuring lovable, anthropomorphized roaches, termites or E. coli bacteria — hey, they have feelings too! — The Ant Bully provides a few moments of inventiveness and wit. Not too many, mind you. The bug theme was big news for Pixar and DreamWorks back in 1998, the year of A Bug's Life and Antz, and this movie, a behind-the-curve effort from Warner Brothers, is unlikely to put either of them in the shade.
The Ant Bully works best when it sticks with the simpler implications of its premise, turning drastic differences of scale and perspective into clever visual jokes. The title character is Lucas Nickle (Zach Tyler Eisen), a picked-on suburban boy who takes revenge on the bullies who bug him by wreaking havoc on the ants who have built their colony on his lawn. In the ant world he is known as the Destroyer, and Zoc, the ant wizard (Cage), devises a potion that will cut this menace down to size. Suddenly, Lucas awakens to find himself a prisoner of the ants, and then, thanks to the intercession of Hova (Roberts), an apprentice ant himself.
Directed by: John A. Davis
WITH THE VOICES OF: Julia Roberts (Hova), Nicolas Cage (Zoc), Meryl Streep (The Ant Queen), Paul Giamatti (Stan Beals), Regina King (Kreela), Bruce Campbell (Fugax), Lily Tomlin (Mommo)
Running time: 90 minutes
Taiwan Release: Today
It turns out that the social insects have much to teach us humans about discipline and cooperation. For them it's all about teamwork, as Zoc explains to Lucas in a quiet, didactic scene. His vision of a society in which every member does his assigned task for the benefit of the group — from each according to his ability, to each according to his need, more or less — strikes Lucas as a stark contrast with the selfish, unfriendly ways of humans. Later he will find a useful application of Zoc's lesson, which he might also have gleaned from watching an old strike movie from the 1930's.
But let's not assume that The Ant Bully is preaching socialism. Coming as they do in the middle of a Time Warner product, Zoc's words are more likely to conjure a bittersweet vision of corporate synergy. If only the various divisions could work together like happy ants, they just might ...
Oh, I don't know. Eat a lot of jellybeans. Its allegorical implications aside, The Ant Bully is a hectic, busy, slapdash entertainment with some inspired visual flights. Among these are the wasps, who hover like attack helicopters, and the slow-moving, ruminant caterpillars who provide delicious food in a rather unappetizing manner. There is the usual assortment of animated-feature supporting characters: vainglorious goofball (Bruce Campbell); sassy, strong woman (Regina King); wise elder (Ricardo Montalban); goofy comic relief (etc.).
The villain is a grotesque exterminator voiced by Paul Giamatti, and the climactic battle against him, though it drags on a bit too long, does have its thrills and surprises. (To appreciate fully the vast disparities between the human and insect points of view, you may want to seek out an IMAX theater, where The Ant Bully will be playing in eye-popping, headache-inducing 3-D.)