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Hey kids! Raise your hands if you’ve been dying to see yet another computer-animated depiction of anthropomorphized insects crawl across the big screen. Anyone? Anyone? Not interested? Didn’t think so. Just in case A Bug’s Life and Antz hadn’t exhausted all the available material that could be mined from the world of creepy-crawlies, Warner Brothers and Tom Hanks bring us the adequate but unremarkable The Ant Bully, based on a book by John Nickle. Even the considerable voice talents of a veritable murderers’ row of Oscar winners and nominees do little to elevate this midsummer retread above the ranks of straight-to-video fare.
Hanks purportedly loved the 1999 children’s book and brought it to John A. Davis and his partner Keith Alcorn, who’d produced the Oscar-nominated Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. The premise is simple but interesting enough: young Lucas (voiced by Zach Tyler) is constantly harassed by the neighborhood bully and takes out his anger on an anthill in his front yard. Frustrated by the constant attacks, an enterprising Wizard Ant named Zoc (Nicolas Cage) concocts a magical potion that, once dropped in the boy’s ear while he sleeps, shrinks him to ant-size proportions. Lucas is whisked off and taken to the colony where he is forced to stand trial for his crimes. A wise and merciful Queen Ant (the mellifluously voiced Meryl Streep) sentences the Destroyer, as he is known to the beleaguered insects, to work amongst them and learn the true meaning of anthood.
Zoc’s Nurse Ant girlfriend Hova (Julia Roberts) is sympathetic to the frightened boy’s plight and volunteers to take him under her wing, a metaphor that would work a whole lot better if she were, say, a mosquito. But I digress. Bruce Campbell and Regina King tag along as a Scout Ant and Forager Ant whom I guess are intended to provide comic relief but the laughs are, regrettably, in short supply. Through it all, the stubborn Lucas warms to his new pals and learns the meaning of hard work, cooperation, and self-sacrifice. All this moralizing leads to a final rousing battle with the Cloud Breather, a dastardly exterminator voiced by Paul Giamatti, whom Lucas has unwittingly released upon the unsuspecting colony.
The film, though largely forgettable, contains a few imaginative touches worth noting. During a foraging mission into Lucas’ house, he and the ants hang-glide on flower petals propelled by a fan, soaring past and becoming part of a landscape painting and flying over mini-replicas of the pyramids as he describes his family vacations. At the council meeting deciding his fate, the entire colony shudders when someone mentions the dreaded “yellow rain” unleashed by the Destroyer. These moments, one sublime and one genuinely funny, are few and far between. The rest just feels like rehashed filler, borrowed from its predecessors. Even the anatomical design of Lucas’ six-legged friends looks like it was cribbed directly from Antz, the less successful of the dueling 1998 releases. Although similarities are to be expected, even the littlest filmgoers would expect some departure from the visual palette that marked those two features.
The Ant Bully does, however, differ in one key respect. While Antz and A Bug’s Life trumpeted the virtues of rugged individualism with their misfit protagonists who battled against conformity, this film seems to embrace a more Marxist ideal. Each ant is given a very specific role they must fill as Lucas is constantly reminded about the importance of sacrificing one’s own needs and desires for the good of the whole. The collectivism espoused by Zoc and the other worker ants is positively Smurfian at times, as if they were reading passages directly from the Communist Manifesto. Joe McCarthy is probably rolling over in his grave as we speak.
Hanks must have used his clout to pull together such a heavyweight cast, all of whom attack their mostly meager roles with gusto (Streep might have five or six lines at most). Unfortunately, the script squanders their talents and gives them little opportunity to inject much of their own personality into the characters. This one suffers mightily in comparison to a classic like Finding Nemo, in which the filmmakers seemed to specifically tailor the story around the comic chemistry of Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres. In the end, The Ant Bully seems entirely derivative, lacking the adult intelligence, imagination, and visual splendor of animation giants like Nemo, Toy Story, and The Incredibles. It’s burdened by a distinctly “been there, done that” vibe that I can’t imagine will generate much excitement, even with the kiddies.