The Ant Bully is based on a very short children's book by John Nickle, who wrote and illustrated the 1999 work all by his lonesome after years of providing illustrations for The Wall Street Journal and Sports Illustrated, not to mention other works of kiddie lit. The book, as most parents of pre-K kiddos have discovered, is a beautifully drawn if crudely told tale of a boy named Lucas, who sports Coke-bottle glasses and a propeller skull cap. He is a sad, lonely boy without any friends; the only attention he receives is from a buzz-cut bully named Sid, the neighborhood sadist armed with sharp sticks, garden hoses, and a pit bull. Lucas, prone to tantrums and crying jags, decides he, too, will become a tormentor of those smaller than he in this case, the ants living in the pile in his front yard.
This being a book for children, there are myriad lessons to be learned, and Lucas is ultimately reduced to the size of his victims and forced to live and work among the ants. The queen wants to teach the boy the value of community; she also wants him to stop drowning the pile, destroying in mere moments what it takes the ants forever to build. Sooner or later, he will also have to protect the pile from his father; the bully, naturally, will have to become the protector in order to gain his freedom and his height.
That John Davis, the director of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, found Nickle's book worth fleshing out is not at all surprising. It's of a piece with Jimmy Neutron: Both stories are about outsiders one a techno-dork on the wrong side of cool who has to save the planet's grownups from space invaders, the other a wimp who has to save a mound of ants from a grownup who would raze their home. Jimmy and Lucas are wimps redeemed by their nobility and bravery superheroes, with powers no mightier than the goodness of their deeds.
Such decency is ultimately what redeems The Ant Bully as much as it does Lucas himself, who is voiced here by Backyardigan Zach Tyler and has been undorked enough to render him just this side of a laughingstock. It still plays very much like a kid's book blown up for the big screen, and it withstands the transition precisely because it doesn't exist to sell things; it's no Happy Meal infomercial, no impulse-item huckster. It exists in a world of its own, one bereft of popular culture save for the handheld videogame into which Lucas retreats for companionship.
Davis has made small alterations to Nickle's tale in order to render it a feature: The baddie is no longer Lucas's father, but a cigar-puffing exterminator (voiced by Paul Giamatti) hell-bent on eradicating every bug except those living on his fetid scalp. The queen, voiced by Meryl Streep, has been reduced to a small part which only exaggerates her ethereal imperiousness, as she appears from behind parted butterfly wings and speaks in the trilling tones of an angel. And there is a romance now, between the ant wizard Zoc (Nicolas Cage), who concocts the potion that shrinks Lucas down to size, and Hova (Julia Roberts, oddly sounding more human than she has in years), who mentors Lucas about the ways of the ant.
Absolutely this lacks the Pixar razzle-dazzle of A Bug's Life or the neurotic charm of Antz, but The Ant Bully isn't meant to play grownup; it's a kids' movie for kids, and Davis approaches it as though he and his casts are merely storytellers trying to reach youngsters rather than show-offs trying to impress their parents. It has little of the wink-wink that animated movies include when they're trying to keep the old people awake. Davis, who also wrote the film, has Big Picture ambitions, but he keeps them aimed at the small people in the audience. There's a wonderful exchange, for instance, between Zoc and Lucas about life in the big city versus life in the small mound, in which they agree that humankind's every-man-for-himself mentality is primitive and dispiriting. There are scenes of remarkable beauty, even the gross-out moments on the exterminator's scalp. And there are moments of pure heartbreak, as the exterminator purges the sky of insects possessing more humanity than most of the people in the movie.
In a way, The Ant Bully has little in common with its bug's-life predecessors; rather it's sort of the perfect companion to the brand-new Monster House, in which a young boy fears that which he doesn't understand and ultimately comes to befriend the man he always thought meant him harm. There's hope yet for the animated movie, which has been hijacked by marketers looking to offload plush product on gimme-gimme kids and their put-upon parents. The Ant Bully is just a little movie about a little guy who turns into a little bug for a little while, and learns some big things in the process and, sometimes, a little can go a very long way.
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