It’s very hard not to read current events into the story of the animated kid’s film, ANT BULLY, but that has as much to do with its dissection of human psychology as it does with this animated film’s prescience. Based on the book by John Nickle, it takes a look at the bullying pecking order kids, and by extension all humans, establish through the eyes of an ant colony. And three guesses which species comes out looking better. The first two don’t count.
Our hero is Lucas (Zack Tyler), the runt of the neighborhood, who copes with the atomic wedgies administered daily to him by the local bully by, in turn, terrorizing an ant hill on his lawn. Effectively internalizing the bully’s message of “I’m big and you’re small” hasn’t helped him with his self-esteem problems, which is why he chooses to hide his atomically ripped-up underwear from his chipper mother, who is starting to be concerned about why her son’s intimate apparel keeps disappearing. Fortunately for the critters of the piece, the ant colony has a resident wizard Zoc (Nicolas Cage) with a spunky idealistic girlfriend Hova (Julia Roberts), and a magic potion that might just teach the eponymous ant bully a lesson he will never forget. Or possibly live through.
The potion, administered through the ear, shrinks Lucas to ant size whereupon he is whisked into the ant hill to stand trial before the ant queen (Meryl Streep) for crimes against the colony. Rather than a summary execution, though, the queen decides that Lucas should be taught ant ways so that he can be a sort of ant ambassador and save the hill down the line. It’s something Hova applauds, since it jibes with her theory that all creatures are basically good, and so she volunteers to be Lucas’ mentor. Zoc, though, is more skeptical, leading to philosophical arguments and a few lovers’ tiffs.
This is a film with first-rate animation, dizzying action sequences, and masses of imagination, but no real heart. There is Lucas’ encounter with wrinkled sheets after being shrunken down to size, as it were. The wasp attack should give everyone pause when encountering one in the wild again, and the excuse one gives when captured that he was only following orders ties in nicely with the political underpinnings. A great deal of care has been taken to insure some accuracy in portraying the insect world, talking and philosophical musings notwithstanding, from the caterpillars that the ants herd for the food they produce, to how ants maneuver over water and negotiate chasms. Alas, not even that potent combination can elevate it past a surfeit of earnestness unrelieved by much in the way of charm or heartwarming fuzzies. On their own, cute moments such as discovering where, exactly, the honeydew juice comes from don’t do the trick. Even Roberts’ standout voice work that is both maternal and feisty, injecting the only real emotion to be found here, doesn’t raise this to the level of a first-rate flick.
Lucas is generic and wooden, strictly there to learn a lesson and thereby also to enlighten the audience. It’s a lesson that the heavy-handed script believes that no one in that audience has ever considered before, thus it is that mantras, such as the ci-mentioned “I am big and you are small” as well as those addressing the fact that ants always consider the welfare of others and that wizards can overcome the impossible, are repeated often and at regular intervals with the effect becoming pedantic to anyone over the age of 10. There are also issues of continuity errors that undermine a plot point or two.
ANT BULLY plays like a bland version of Deepak Chopra, without the hypnotically effective speaking voice, or the seductive sense of conviction. It’s there to teach as much as to entertain, Aside from the seemingly inevitable tie-ins that kids’ films are prone to, the wonder of Jelly Bellys, or in ant lore, “sweet rocks”, are thoroughly explored, there are some truly noble aspirations at work here. Adults may not be enthralled, but kids might learn something, and kudos for that.