Ant Bully, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/27/06 23:39:01

"This week's forgettable generic CGI cartoon."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

To think that Warner Bros. spent untold millions on bringing in a big name voice cast for their animated feature “The Ant Bully”… yet I spent half the movie thinking Julia Roberts was Bonnie Hunt, or maybe Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Huh.

In fact, for a project where the biggest selling point is the voice talent, there are too few vocal performances that stand out. Bruce Campbell is noticeable as a comical blowhard, but then, he’s noticeable in anything he does. Paul Giamatti hams things up with a bad attitude and a New Yawk accent to make for an enjoyable villain. And, well, that’s about it. Meryl Streep’s brief turn as the ant queen features a lovely performance, and Roberts and Nicolas Cage are more than serviceable in the leading roles, but all three characters are so generic and unimpressive that these actors have nothing to make them memorable; replace these people with B- or C-level stars, or even simply anonymous voice performers, and you’d wind up with the same darn movie. (The IMDB tells me Lily Tomlin had a role, but for the life of me, I didn’t notice that was her at all. For a movie to make you not notice Lily Tomlin, that’s something.)

It comes down to “generic and unimpressive.” Not just the performances, but the screenplay - written by director John A. Davis (who previously gave us the brilliant, underrated “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius”) and based on the book by John Nickle - which never reaches above average. The story finds young Lucas (voiced by Zach Tyler of Nickelodeon’s “Avatar”), a shy kid who vents the frustrations of his being bullied by tormenting the ants in his yard, magically transformed to the size of an ant by Zoc (Cage), a shaman of the ant colony. The thoughtful Hova (Roberts) hopes that instead of merely killing “The Destroyer,” the ants can teach him to better himself by learning how to become an ant - to work together as a team, to see others’ differences as helpful things, to not pick on somebody just because he’s smaller than you, to “find your place in the colony,” that sort of thing. Of course, Lucas is the sort who will sulk and mumble “I don’t need your help” whenever he’s in trouble, only to learn that he does indeed need their help. You can see exactly to what Valuable Lessons this thing is leading.

Which is fine - it delivers its morals without becoming too cloying in the process - but the movie never feels like it’s trying. It’s as if Davis was hurrying to get from point A to B to C with as little effort as possible. Maybe this is why most of the story feels unfinished or underwritten. Consider the plotline involving Giamatti’s character of the wicked exterminator. There’s a whole scene early on in which this guy tries to trick Lucas into signing a service contract. It’s supposed to be a clever play on the contract-with-the-devil theme (the exterminator’s name is Beals, his company is named Beals-A-Bug, and ant religion views him as the great evil one), but it never clicks. The scene is too rushed, plowing through everything before we have the time to appreciate what it’s attempting; there’s no workable follow-through with this idea (Lucas does try to cancel the contract later on, but what this concept needs is more trickery on the part of the “devil;” the idea is simply abandoned); and besides, as written, it’s just not very funny.

Plus, with Beals simply isn’t in the movie as much as he needs to be to make for a proper threat. As such, the climactic battle seems more tacked-on than big-thrills. Toss in a weak running gag about a doltish granny who fears an alien invasion and who’s always losing her false teeth, slap on a terminally formulaic, pretty-much-out-of-nowhere epilogue involving the local (human) bully getting his comeuppance, and you’re looking at something too slapdash to work. Nothing in this movie ever feels inspired.

It does, however, have a few decent things going its way. The animation is, for the most part, as dazzling as we’ve come to expect with our computer-created treats; the character design is attractive and admirable, and the “cave art” scenes (in which Lucas is introduced to the ant colony’s drawn history, which resembles ancient cave drawings) are pretty stunning. And on a storytelling level, Davis’ knack for comic timing is on display, with a well played verbal or sight gag earning a few chuckles here and there.

But these are only smaller parts of a film that’s merely going through the motions. There’s nothing here that’s truly memorable - not even the big “war” between Beals and hundreds of insects, which has the best opportunity to wow, builds up enough energy to impress. “The Ant Bully” has enough poop jokes and dopey inspirational moments to win over young children for a while, but it does nothing to set itself apart.

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