Julia Roberts, Paul Giamatti, Meryl Streep, Nicolas Cage, Zach Tyler
John A. Davis
John A. Davis, John Nickle
I guess there are just so many ways you can draw an ant.
From the opening moments of "Ant Bully," the latest film from John Davis ("Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius"), it is readily apparent that we are in for an exercise in cinematic mediocrity.
Despite being produced by Tom Hanks and featuring voice work from an all-star cast, "Ant Bully" is remarkable only for its complete lack of entertainment value and the all too familiar presentation of the ants in question.
What is it about ants, anyway?
There was, of course, that wonderful little film featuring Woody Allen, called "Antz." Then, there was the even more entertaining "A Bug's Life." Now, there's "Ant Bully," based upon a short children's book by John Nickle.
Are we getting all of our life lessons for kids from ants these days?
Unfortunately, the life lessons in "Ant Bully" come in the form of "hit you over the head" moralizing statements made by the various ants. These statements are often verbalized with great intensity, perhaps to guarantee that even the dimmest child in the audience gets the lesson.
The story centers around Lucas Nickle (Hmmm. How odd. The author gives the nerdish bully his own last name. Is this whole thing an act of repentance?), a young nerdish boy who gets picked on regularly by neighborhood bullies. Young Lucas (voiced by Zach Tyler), who is known as "The Destroyer" by the ants, bullies the ants because they are smaller than him.
Life lesson #'s 1 and 2...There is an abusive cycle that gets handed down from bully to bully AND very often it involves bigger picking on smaller. Okay, got it.
Unknown to Lucas, however, ants aren't the mindless, powerless drones he believes...instead, they are intelligent, organized and community-minded creatures not that far from humans.
Life lesson #3...We're not all that different so we should find a way to get along! Cool, got it!
After Lucas floods an ant colony with his water hose, the wizard Ant, Zok (Nicolas Cage) sneaks into Lucas's bedroom and slips a magic potion in his ear. This, in turn, reduces Lucas to the size of an ant.
Lucas is brought before the Queen Ant (Meryl Streep), and is sentenced to hard time in the colony under the guidance of Hova (Julia Roberts) and her friends, Kreela (Regina King) and Fugax (Bruce Campbell).
The life lessons are, by now, too immense in numbers to mention, however, suffice it to say there will be lessons in community, friendship, kindness, ecology and, well, politics. They will all band together to ward off the evil exterminator (Paul Giamatti), and there will, of course, be a cute and warm and fuzzy happy ending.
With all this star power, it's utterly amazing that the film's only true stand-out is Bruce Campbell. Campbell, whose Fugax is energetic, fun and unique, almost singlehandedly elevates the film above mediocrity.
However, it's hard to have fun during a film in which it feels like you are constantly being bombarded with statements of key importance followed by moments of ant action designed to keep the kiddies' attention.
While the book "Ant Bully" is a sparse 29 page children's book, it contains infinitely more charm and wit and entertainment value than this film in its nearly 90 minute length.
Even potentially entertaining add-ons featuring Ricardo Montalban and Lily Tomlin fall remarkably flat. Tomlin, in particular, is stuck performing the same comic set-up repeatedly...unfortunately it's not funny the first time, the second time or the third time.
"Ant Bully" is attractive to look at, but it all looks remarkably familiar. While nobody in the cast is particularly bad, with names like Streep, Cage and Giamatti I think I have a right to expect something special...nobody ever delivers that something special. If you've ever heard Streep narrate "The Velveteen Rabbit," then you'll find yourself remarkably disappointed by her offering here.
It is hard not to be troubled by a film that seems obsessed with teaching about community and friendship, but ends up preaching more about conformity and self-sacrifice. I couldn't help but think to myself that this is how the abusive cycle actually perpetuates itself. Thus, these were the real life lessons I received from "Ant Bully":
1) Children get bullied.
2) Children look for way to express feelings, and sometimes turn into bullies.
3) Instead of being listened to, supported or helped they are, in turn, judged, punished and, at times, even humiliated for the sake of teaching a "lesson."
4) The child "learns a lesson," but loses their individuality and conforms as a way of survival.
If these sound like life lessons you want your children to learn, then bully for you...go see "Ant Bully." If you'd rather have your child be entertained, encouraged or empowered then rent "Antz," "A Bug's Life" or, heck, just go see "Cars" for the third time!
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic