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Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Ant Bully

Something was bugging me this week at the Essex Cinemas and it wasn’t just that manager Dale Chapman had injured himself on the job and was hobbling around in pain. No, I was bugged by The Ant Bully, a new animated film from John A. Davis, the man behind Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.

What bugged me was the very fact that it was another ant movie. First we had Antz, then A Bug’s Life, and now this. Are there no other creepy-crawlies worth a starring role in an animated feature if it must be about a common pest? I’ll admit it, I went in with an attitude, but by the movie’s end a short 90 minutes later I emerged enchanted by the entire colony of little insects. I’ll never step on one again. Unless it’s in my kitchen. I promise.

The Ant Bully starts out a tad similar to the also showing Monster House, with our youthful protagonist being left at home as his parents depart for a vacation alone. Where do cartoon parents go on holiday anyway? I think it would be easier to just erase them from the get-go, maybe have the kids be orphans, but I suppose that might be a tad bit depressing for the wee ones in the audience, so instead the filmmakers just instill a sense of separation anxiety in them at an early age and let the kids know that their parents need a chance to get the hell away from them every once in a while because they can’t stand being in their presence one more minute. In this case, ten year old Lucas (voiced by Zach Tyler; Marci X) and his wired-for-sound sister Tiffany (Smallville’s Allison Mack) are left to be looked after by their alien-hunting, tabloid-reading, denture losing grandmother, called Mommo (Lily Tomlin; most recently seen in A Prairie Home Companion). Mommo is a bit “special” to say the least. Her wheels may be spinning, but the hamster is definitely dead, if you know what I mean, and I’m sure that you do. For that reason, nothing much happens when the ants in a colony from Lucas’ yard kidnap him and take him inside their ant hill one night.

They’ve got it in for young Lucas because he is The Ant Bully of the title, having reigned rain upon the hill from his squirt gun and garden hose while taking out his anger after having been bullied himself by the neighborhood cretin, an older boy who specializes in wedgies and threats of bodily violence. Unfortunately for Lucas, this anthill has its’ own wizard, Zoc (Nicolas Cage; World Trade Center), who has created a potion capable of shrinking the gigantic boy (at least in their eyes) down to ant size.

Once Lucas is shrunk and captured, he is ordered by the Queen (Meryl Streep; The Devil Wears Prada) to live amongst the colony and “learn to be an ant.” Easier said than done, especially since many of the group don’t like the idea of a human in their midst, but at least one brave soul, Hova (Julia Roberts; Oceans Twelve) is willing to step up ~ with all six legs ~ and offer to mentor the boy.

From here Hova takes her new charge to join classes with the other ant children where they learn lessons in teamwork in a dizzying exercise that is a visual delig
ht for the audience, if not much fun for young Lucas, who continues to struggle with finding his inner ant.

Of course eventually Lucas does just that, and does it just in time to be of great service to the colony as it is under siege from the most horrid of all visages ~ Paul Giamatti! Well, an animated Giamatti (Lady in the Water) anyway as Stan Beals, the exterminator who is determined to rid the yard of every bug he sees, whether it crawls, flies, or merely breathes on the property.

he assault on Stan is without a doubt the funniest and most nostalgic of sections of the picture for people of a certain age like me. Reminiscent of films of the forties and fifties that recreated the allied attacks on Germany in World War II there are some humorous and yet oddly beautiful renderings of the ant army making a surprise aerial bombing on the beastly Beals, who is armed with a menacing weapon of mass destruction, his “dark cloud”, what we’d call his pesticide.

When Beals is shown in graphic close-up, as Lucas is forced to make direct contact with the enemy, I found it hard not to feel personally uncomfortable in my seat. Mr
. Beals is drawn as, ahem, presumably hygienically challenged and Lucas is lucky (?) enough to meet new friends during his drop-in visit when a nest of head lice proves to be socially conscious and more than welcoming to their new acquaintance. Too bad for them that Lucas doesn’t have more time to accommodate but he has to run ~ straight down to Beals’ nose hairs. And speaking of that nose, it has to run as well, giving the kids what they love best… flying bodily fluids!

The biggest laughs in The Ant Bully come from this moment and one earlier when
Hova and Fugax (Bruce Campbell; The Woods) encourage Lucas to join them in an ant’s favorite dinner ~ honeydew ~ which Lucas finds so incredibly delicious that he gobbles down an entire bowlful meant for everybody at the table and then asks for more… until he (and the audience) sees where honeydew comes from. Let’s just say this honeydew ain’t no melon and it’s a crappy thing to serve to a friend without telling him ahead of time.

Overall, The Ant Bully has a lot of beautiful moments and some sweet lessons for the kids without seeming to force them down the throats of
the audience. The sincerity of Lucas’ feelings of friendship, homesickness, and his growing desire to protect and care for the ant colony seem natural and hopefully open the eyes of younger viewers to the idea that there is a bigger world out in their own backyard than they could ever imagine.

My only gripe with the movie, and it’s as small as a glowworm, is the glowworm itself as a matter of fact. There is an adorably droopy worm and his beetle buddy who make cameo appearances for no apparent reason throughout the picture except to drop a joke now and then. I wouldn’t usually object to an appearance such as this, but there is just something a bit too familiar about this particular worm. He may not have a German accent, but he sure could be an American cousin to A Bug’s Life’s favorite caterpillar, Heimlich, and The Ant Bully doesn’t need that comparison.

That said, all is forgiven thanks mostly to the filmmakers’ clever and innovative use of constantly changing
perspectives to bring funny and often times brilliant moments of realization as to how different the same activities affect those in the same environment. For instance, when a firecracker explodes in the midst of a battle royal between the ants and a battalion of wasps it ends the fighting instantly, much as an atomic bomb going off might do, but for us, the camera cuts to the explosion from a human-sized perspective and we barely see a *poof* of smoke and a *pop* in the grass, unnoticed by anyone. It’s these types of thoughtful additions that make me say “Bully!” for The Ant Bully.

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