Meet Lucas "Peanut" Nickle (voice of Zach Tyler), a stereotypical nerd. Mercilessly picked on by neighborhood bullies, he takes out his frustration on the ants inhabiting his front lawn, stomping on them and flooding their underground caverns with water from the hose. Little does Lucas know that ants aren't mindless drones - they're thinking creatures that speak with the voices of Julia Roberts Nicolas Cage, Bruce Campbell, Regina King, Ricardo Montalban (who fails to mention "rich Corinthian leather" even once), and Meryl Streep. When the wizard Zoc (Cage) discovers a miniaturizing potion and pours it in Lucas' ear, he's diminished to ant-size faster than you can say, "Honey, I shrunk the kid!" He then learns lessons about teamwork, diversity, and friendship from his mentor, Hova (Roberts), and her companions, Kreela (King) and Fugax (Campbell). This prepares him for a showdown with the Exterminator (Paul Giamatti).
If your child is in need of sermons about the importance of being kind to others, the value of diversity, and the merits of teamwork, The Ant Bully is a perfect choice. Like a preacher on speed, it never stops pounding the pulpit. (Alternative, probably unintentional message: Ants are our friends. We shouldn't step on them.) Since small children are easily bored by prattling characters, even when they're animated to look like bugs, there are plenty of inane action sequences that seem better suited as patterns for a video game than a movie. (Avoid the leaping frog! Dodge the flying insect! Outrun the Exterminator's toxic spray! Paraglide across the living room and nab a jellybean!). Six year olds may be enthralled; older viewers will be fighting the urge to take a nap.
This is a comedown for director John A. Davis, whose previous feature, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, at least had the quality of being clever. Despite the inanity of the script, Davis corralled a group of high-profile Hollywood stars to provide voices. Roberts (doing her first post-pregnancy work), Cage, Streep, and Giamatti have the most visible names but, perhaps unsurprisingly, it's Bruce Campbell who provides The Ant Bully with its only juice. As the swaggering Fugax, Campbell's animated alter-ego is a perfect extension of the actor's usual screen persona. Curiously, Davis went with little-known Zach Tyler in the lead role, rather than, say, recruiting Dakota Fanning and asking her to talk like a boy.
The Ant Bully is representative of a new, cynical mindset that has arisen amongst animated film distributors. Call it the Field of Dreams mentality: if you make it, they will come. Why bother with wit, intelligence, and emotion when children will be equally entertained by pretty images, colorful action, and the obligatory poop joke? (In this instance, it occurs when poor Lucas is getting his first taste of ant food.) It's depressing to see how far animated films have fallen in such a short time. Was it only two years ago that The Incredibles were flying? Or three years ago that Nemo was swimming? Now we're stuck with a personality-deprived kid shrunk so he can inhabit a world populated by a bunch of plastic ants. Forget Paul Giamatti. Someone call the Orkin Man.
© 2006 James Berardinelli