What kid hasn't — out of boredom or some darker impulse — wreaked havoc on an anthill? Mischievous-minded young viewers might think twice after seeing The Ant Bully (Warner Bros.), a whimsically entertaining computer-animated fable in the same mold as 1998's competing insect epics, A Bug's Life and Antz, based on the John Nickle children's book.
Written and directed by John A. Davis, the pixilated parable centers on 10-year-old Lucas Nickle (voiced by Zack Tyler Eisen), a bespectacled runt picked on by a neighborhood bully. To compensate for his sense of powerlessness, Lucas, in turn, takes out his anger on a colony of talking ants in his front yard.
Fed up with Lucas' unprovoked aggressions, wizard ant Zoc (Nicolas Cage) sneaks into the boy's bedroom and pours a magic potion into Lucas' ear. The elixir shrinks him to bug size and he is whisked off to the bowels of the anthill, where he is put on trial — for “crimes against the colony” — before a tribunal overseen by the ant queen (Meryl Streep).
His punishment: He will remain miniaturized until he understands the error of his ant-agonistic ways. The opportunity to make amends comes when — together with Zoc's girlfriend, Hova (Julia Roberts), and two other ants (Regina King and Bruce Campbell) — Lucas leads the colony in battle against the slovenly Stan Beals (Paul Giamatti), a gung-ho exterminator intent on making the yard bug-free.
The animation is imaginative and vibrant, highlighted by a terrific climax where the ants, astride a fleet of wasps with propjet plane wings, mount an aerial attack on Beals.
Annoying pop-culture references are thankfully absent. But, surprisingly, the A-list voice talent gives bland performances and the writing is less than sharp. Though The Ant Bully is, obviously, kid-friendly, there is a sequence involving a snacking bullfrog that may be upsetting for sensitive tykes. (At a press screening, one toddler burst into tears.)
The film's subtext seems to be saying something about nations' abuse of power. (Water-gun blasts bombard the ant hill with the force of cruise missiles.) Of course any such political implication will be lost on the kiddies, whose antennae will be tuned to the story's simpler might-doesn't-make-right moral. The movie also extols community and working together for the common good over self-interest, while interweaving themes of friendship, commonality and of course not stepping on others, especially the weak and defenseless often squashed underfoot. Not bad for a movie about bugs!
The film contains a few instances of mildly crude language and humor and a menacing sequence that may be scary for very young children. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-I — general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
(This review appears courtesy of US Conference of Catholic Bishop's Office for Film and Broadcasting.)