If the conservative wingnuts thought Superman Returns had an "un-American" agenda, they're going to have a stroke over the latest addition to this summer's computer-animated kidfest. It's only a matter of time before the Neil Cavutos and Debbie Schlussels of the world accuse Hollywood of brainwashing our unsuspecting tots with a celluloid version of The Communist Manifesto.
Writer-director John A. Davis follows up his delightfully witty, Oscar-nominated Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius with the visually inventive but ultimately predictable The Ant Bully.
Based on John Nickle's children's book, the story follows a lonely little boy named Lucas who finds himself the target of neighborhood bullies. Humiliated for the umpteenth time, he does what countless other small boys have done and torments something smaller than himself; namely, the ants in his backyard.
Weary of his devastating attacks, the ant colony's chief wizard, Zoc (Nicolas Cage), concocts a plan to shrink "The Destroyer" and make him stand trial. When the Queen (Meryl Streep) decides to sentence the boy to live and work among the ants, Zoc's mate, Hova (Julia Roberts), helps teach him about humility, hard work and cooperation. Before long, Lucas is helping the colony fight off marauding wasps, hungry frogs and a villainous exterminator (Paul Giamatti).
Comparisons to 1998's Antz are inevitable, and while there are obvious similarities, the two movies diverge in tone, character and message. Where Antz trumpeted the American ideal of individualism and independence in the face of a totalitarian society, The Ant Bully pleads for peaceful co-existence and a society that works for the collective welfare of all (ants are nature's communists, after all).
Messages of tolerance and cooperation aside, the plot and characters are pretty bland. The interesting and high-powered cast of vocal actors isn't given much room to play, and the overly chatty pace occasionally grinds things to a halt. Luckily, Giamatti is terrifically sleazy as Stan of Beals-a-Bug Extermination (representing the Great Evil Capitalist) and Bruce Campbell adds some much-needed personality as the macho, dim-witted Fugax.
Davis excels in examining the world from an ant's point of view. Some wonderfully loopy action sequences inventively shift scale and perspective a raid on a box of Jelly Bellies, the nuclear explosion-like effect of a firecracker, and the final battle between chemical-spewing Stan and a coalition of ants, wasps and other assorted insects.
Ant Bully also earns points for being a kid's movie actually made for kids. It's doesn't work overtime to impress parents with Pixar-like pyrotechnics and pop culture references, and its running time is kept blissfully short.
While kids may enjoy the "united we stand" theme, especially with regard to bullies, the constant moralizing about cooperation and "discovering the ant within" quickly wears thin. The filmmakers should have focused more on its sci-fi adventure underpinnings (a la Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) and lightened the call for genial collectivism. But what would you expect from a bunch of commie pinko bastards?
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.