Put this movie under a magnifying glass.
It took several years to make The Ant Bully, with a small army of animators and computer tech types working long, hard hours to bring this star-studded animated adventure to the big screen, and now onto DVD. Knowing that, it really breaks my heart to tell you all that, as far as animated films go, it’s just mediocre.
In the kingdom of the ants, few things are more frightening than the Destroyer, a giant that seems to exist only to wreak mass destruction on their home. This deadly force of nature is actually Lucas (Zach Tyler, The Backyardigans), a little boy being bullied by bigger kids in his neighborhood. Out of frustration, Lucas responds by attacking his front yard’s ant hill with hoses, rocks, and kicks from his sneakers. The ants’ resident wizard, Zoc (Nicolas Cage, The Rock), has a solution. He’s created a powerful potion that shrinks Lucas down the ants’ size. Now a captive of the ants, a frightened Lucas is brought before their queen (Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada) for judgment. She decides that Lucas must live as one of them, to teach him a lesson. Lucas’s instructor in the ways of antdom is the kind-hearted Hova (Julia Roberts, Closer), who has her work cut out for her, because none of the other ants want their “Destroyer” living with them. When a death-happy exterminator (Paul Giamatti, Sideways) arrives to rid the entire lawn of all insects, it’s up to Lucas to save the day.
Let’s start with what works in The Ant Bully. The animation is certainly nice to look at. The amount of detail in the many huge virtual sets is impressive. The ants’ underground kingdom is the most eye-popping, but the same wow factor goes for the “wilderness” of the lawn, and the interior of Lucas’s house when seen from an ant’s tiny viewpoint. There are some very nice “sense of wonder” moments, such as ants using flower pedals for hang gliding.
The handful of big action scenes also jump off the screen, with Lucas and the ants working together (sort of) to get across an obstacle course, an explosive battle against some stinging wasp-like bugs, ants being chased by a hungry frog, and the final conflict against the exterminator. The mass destruction wreaked on the ant hill by Lucas is also exciting when seen from the ants’ view, especially the flood of water that rushes through the underground tunnels at a key moment.
Not only is the movie visually rich, but it moves along at a quick pace, as Lucas and the ants move from one adventure to the next. There are plenty of characters keeping events moving along as well, including Bruce Campbell (Army of Darkness, Bubba Ho-Tep) as a smooth-talkin’ scout ant, Allison Mack (Smallville) as Lucas’s obnoxious older sister, Regina King (A Cinderella Story) as a rival teacher, veteran voice actor Rob Paulsen (Animaniacs) as a comic relief beetle, and Lily Tomlin (Nine to Five) as Lucas’s alien conspiracy-obsessed grandmother.
As expected for a computer generated movie, the picture and audio on the DVD are top-notch. The colors are as bright and vivid as they should be, and the black levels are deep and rich. The 5.1 sound is of similar quality, using the surrounds effectively throughout. The featurette here is a nice one, showing a step-by-step walkthrough of the creation of the movie. It also acts as an interactive game, encouraging viewers to find hidden ants as they watch. The additional scenes, mostly in a rough form, add a few character moments, but that’s all. The animated shorts show a lot of wit and cleverness not seen in the film itself. The “TV screensaver” of an ant farm is amusing, but too repetitive for what it is. The theatrical trailer is also included.
This next bit is nit-picky, but it reveals a larger problem with the film. See, when Lucas shrinks down to ant size, his clothes don’t shrink with him. He spends the rest of the movie half-naked, usually wearing nothing but a little brown diaper-looking thing. Don’t worry, this is never portrayed in a perverted way (thank God) but it somehow just doesn’t feel right for the character. This feeling is true of the movie as a whole. It’s a great concept with great characters, but it leaves viewers with a “blah” feeling. It just doesn’t come together as the exciting thrill ride it should be.
This movie throws a lot of humor at viewers, but I’m sad to say I didn’t laugh once. There are a lot of bits with characters belching for the sake of a cheap gag, as well as fart-like sound effects added here and there for additional cheap jokes, and an unfunny scene about something disgusting the ants eat. What the humor really needs is more wit and less broad slapstick. I know, the target audience here is young kids, but kids are pretty smart these days, and they can handle some more sophisticated laughs.
There might be a lot of big-name stars providing voices, but I’m afraid these aren’t their finest performances. Nicolas Cage’s character goes from heroic to villainous to Lucas’s converted friend. This makes it hard to understand where he’s coming from or what he’s thinking at times. Julia Roberts, meanwhile, doesn’t have a character that changes much throughout the story. Her goal is to communicate with Lucas and learn to get along with him, and that happens fairly early on.
Our hero Lucas suffers from a slim character arc. There are moments early on in which he insists on doing everything himself, refusing to work with others as a team. This obviously sets up his learning an important lesson later on. The problem that this feels forced, added in only to hammer a message home to kids, rather than serve the plot and character.
In short, The Ant Bully fails to reach the heights it shoots for, and that’s quite a disappointment.
It bothers me to say such harsh things about this movie, because everyone involved clearly had the best of intentions. The final result comes close to a being a great movie, but never gets there.