[Screen It]

(2006) (voices of Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage) (PG)

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Animated Adventure: After terrorizing the ant colony in his backyard, a boy must contend with being shrunken down to their size and assimilated into their society.
Lucas Nickle (voice of ZACH TYLER EISEN) is a young boy who's often terrorized by the local neighborhood bully. Unable to tell his parents (voice of CHERI OTERI & LARRY MILLER) who are headed off for a childfree vacation, or get help from his teenage sister Tiffany (voice of ALLISON MACK) or alien-obsessed grandmother Mommo (voice of LILY TOMLIN), Lucas takes out his anger and frustration on the ant colony in his backyard, routinely flooding them with the garden hose or trying to stomp them with his enormous (to them) sneaker.

Deemed "The Destroyer" by the ants, he's become the focus of the wizard Zoc (voice of NICOLAS CAGE) who's trying to concoct a potion that might solve their problem. That sounds good to the Head of the Ant Council (voice of RICARDO MONTALBAN), but Zoc's girlfriend, nurse ant Hova (voice of JULIA ROBERTS) would rather pursue some sort of diplomacy. But it's too late as Zoc finally perfects a potion that shrinks Lucas down to their size.

Kidnapped and brought before the Ant Queen (voice of MERYL STREEP), Lucas is sentenced to work as an ant within the colony, but he wants no part of that. Hova takes it upon herself to teach him the ways of their world, and hopes to have foraging instructor Kreela (voice of REGINA KING) -- who's romantically pursued by boastful scout ant Fugax (voice of BRUCE CAMPBELL) -- help out in that quest.

As Lucas learns what it means to be a team player within the colony, he must not only put up with his inherent deficiencies in this foreign world and Zoc's dislike and distrust of him, but also the inherent dangers, including giant marauding wasps and the arrival of Stan Beals (voice of PAUL GIAMATTI), a Godzilla-sized exterminator who's intent on killing every pest in the backyard.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
What just make that little ol' ant, they he can move a rubber tree plant? Everyone knows an ant can't, move a rubber tree plant. But he's gotůSPLAT! I was going to say high hopes, but that was before the huge human index finger descended from the heavens and turned him into an ant patty.

Roaches and mosquitoes may spread disease and spiders give some the willies, but ants are merely seen as pests and most people don't have any problem exterminating them on their own or via proxy. Some of that could stem from childhood experimentation -- particularly from boys -- in a sort of miniature animal cruelty where experiments featuring ants and magnifying glasses and/or garden hoses don't bid well for the colonized insects.

Such is the case in "The Ant Bully," the latest computer animated film to feature insects and particularly ants as the main characters (following "Antz" and "A Bug's Life"). In it, a human boy takes out his aggression about being bullied by terrorizing an ant colony in his backyard, thus turning him into the title character.

In return, the ants use a little hocus pocus to even the playing field, shrinking the boy -- known as "The Destroyer" -- down to their size so that he can learn to become a team player and thus realize those he previously terrorized have feelings too. Yes, the "get to know thee enemy" message is a little heavy-handed, but not uncommon for a film aimed at younger kids, and the usual learning lessons, adventures, moments of peril and bits of comedy follow in a rote fashion for this genre.

In short (pun intended), writer/director John A. Davis, adapting John Nickle's book -- has fashioned yet another variation of the old "The Incredible Shrinking Man" plot (see also "Honey I Shrunk the Kids"). That's where the boy goes from big man of the back yard to the runt of a world filled with skyscraper type mailboxes, redwood type blades of grass, and all sorts of previously swat-able critters that now tower over and could very well be the end of young Lucas.

It has some fun and funny moments, an A-list of vocal performers (Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Paul Giamatti, with some better in this sort of work than others), and good state of the art computer animation (although not quite up there with Pixar's latest). Yet, it's missing the sort of spark that should make this sort of fantastical tale pop off the screen. Although it gets a bit better as it unfolds, it never generates the sort of magic that the best films of this genre seem to exude effortlessly.

Some of that obviously stems from its overall predictable story arc, but maybe some can be attributed to the underlying mean streak that runs in a thematic fashion beneath all of the action and comedy. Lucas is bullied, so he bullies the ants. In turn, he's shrunken and abducted, and then turned into a slave of sorts in a rather cruel world where marauding wasps, giant toads and rays of sunlight pose imminent dangers. Yes, that's probably true to form in the real world, but it feels a bit much for a film aimed at younger kids.

As to be expected, that also includes a visit by the formidable exterminator, a towering human with a sadistic zeal for disposing of any sort of pest (ironically enough, he's voiced by Giamatti who wouldn't otherwise conjure up that sort of image in a live-action role -- notwithstanding a related bit recently in "Lady in the Water"). That results in more doom and death, as well as the usual injury to a man's groin area that seems obligatory for this sort of offering

Despite being beaten to the punch with similar material in the far better "Over the Edge," his arrival at the end of the film provides for some fun visual moments, particularly in a bit of spoofy homage to the old Godzilla flicks. It's just too bad that more such spark can't be found in the rest of the effort.

Perhaps if no other insect-based, computer animated film existed, this one might seem better. However, if these sorts of pics keep proliferating, it might be time to bring in some cinematic pest control to prevent an outbreak of more. Occasionally fun but otherwise suffering from a case of mediocrity, "The Ant Bully" rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 7, 2006 / Posted July 28, 2006

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