Go to the ant, thou bully; consider her ways, and be wise! That, in a nutshell, is the lesson of The Ant Bully, a moral fable about a boy who is picked on by other children, and who vents his frustrations by attacking an anthill—until the day comes when the ants who live there strike back by sneaking into his house and shrinking him down to their size, to make him live as one of them. The screenplay, adapted by director John A. Davis from a children's book by John Nickle, is as obvious and direct as they come. But the animation is a pure delight, especially if you happen to enjoy looking at the world through a microscope.
As with last week's Monster House, so here: the story concerns a boy, in this case named Lucas (Zach Tyler Eisen), who has a fantastic adventure without leaving home, all while his parents are away on some sort of trip. Instead of a babysitter, Lucas has a teenaged older sister (Allison Mack) and a kooky grandmother (Lily Tomlin) to look after him, but the former is too busy gabbing with friends on her cell phone to pay him much attention, and the latter is a little too weird to be of any help; she is particularly obsessed with UFOs.
The ants who abduct Lucas live in a colony in the front yard of his house, and they are able to shrink him down to their size with a potion prepared by Zoc, a wizard whose voice is provided by Nicolas Cage at his most earnest. At times his performance is so out of touch with that of his co-stars that it takes you out of the movie; instead of responding to Zoc as a character, you may find yourself pondering the fact that the voices in an animated film are usually recorded separately, and you may find yourself wondering what strange contortions Cage was putting his face and body through in the recording booth.
Anyway, the ants take the potion into Lucas's house, in a marvelous sequence that shows the floor, the stairs, and the bedroom from their point of view. And then, when Lucas wakes up and discovers that he is now so small that he could walk right through his underpants (yup, he's naked, but the naughty bits are tastefully hidden from our view), we follow him as he slides, out of control, down the folds of his bedsheet and into a bag of chips, and ultimately into the hands of the ants themselves, who take him to their colony.
There, he finds that many of the ants are ready and eager to exact revenge for the way he stepped on them or flooded their colony with his water gun. (Zoc agrees with one ant's suggestion that they eat Lucas, which brings to mind how Cage once ate a live cockroach in Vampire's Kiss. One wonders, what if the cockroaches wanted revenge against him?) But then a couple of female ants intervene. The queen, who appears from behind a pair of butterfly wings like some sort of tribal deity (her ethereal voice is provided by Meryl Streep, and vaguely reminiscent of her turn as the Blue Fairy in A.I. Artificial Intelligence), decrees that Lucas must live among the ants and learn their ways; and Zoc's girlfriend Hova (Julia Roberts) volunteers to look after Lucas as he reluctantly becomes one of them.
What follows is a reasonably entertaining mix of moral lessons and action setpieces. When Lucas is assigned to one of two teams of young ants as part of a lesson in foraging, his refusal to do things the way that ants have always done them gives his team an advantage, at first—he finds a shortcut which his teammates quickly follow—but it also prevents them from winning in the end. Lucas and the ants also have to cope with attacks from wasps, frogs, and especially an evil exterminator named Stan Beals (Paul Giamatti), who runs the Beals-a-Bug fumigation service and looks eerily like the sort of gloating heathen you'd find in a Jack T. Chick tract. (The name Beals-a-Bug is an obvious allusion to "Beelzebub," a biblical name for the Devil which literally means "lord of the flies"—and lo and behold, flies do indeed circle Stan Beals's head. So much for his pest control!)
The Ant Bully is nowhere near as politically sophisticated as, say, Antz, which satirized the strict regimentation of ant society and emphasized the need for both individual freedom and communal responsibility; but the new film's simpler approach is just fine for its younger target audience. More problematic, for some parents, may be The Ant Bully's regular gross-out gags and below-the-belt humor—for example, when Lucas finds himself trapped with some insects inside a frog's stomach, sitting in its digestive juices, or when a couple of insects fly up a man's pants in search of a vulnerable target. But while this sort of thing can certainly get annoying in some films, I find it easier to take in stories about creatures with bodies very different from ours, or in stories that take place at a microscopic level; the world God made is strange, fascinating, and often amusing, and kids do respond to that. (I have never cared much for the Farrelly brothers' brand of humor, but I am a huge fan of their semi-animated film Osmosis Jones, in which Chris Rock plays a white blood cell.)
The film also features some enjoyably witty and surreal moments, from a climactic scene involving a firecracker to a bizarre use of classical music. And there is an intriguing sequence involving the ants' religion. It's not as interesting or poignant as, say, the rabbits' mythology in Watership Down, but it's also not as jokey or dismissive as the squeeze-toys' reverence for "the claw" in Toy Story. And while some conservative theologians may quibble with the fact that the ants' god is, in fact, a goddess—an "Ant Mother" who is called "the Queen of Queens"—it is hard to imagine what else a species like this would have. The more important point here is that the film acknowledges that faith is an important part of our social fabric, and if the film has any moral lessons to pass on, it implicitly roots them in a spiritual foundation. And that, in and of itself, is another lesson worth passing on.Discussion starters
- The bully says he is beating Lucas up because "I'm big, and you're small." Lucas then repeats these words when he torments the ant colony. Have you ever tried to feel "big" by treating "small" people in an unfair way? Are there advantages to being "small"
- How should we treat animals? Do some animals deserve better treatment than others? How do we distinguish between them? Note the references in this film to feelings, families, and the ability to communicate—do traits like these make a difference
- What is the relationship between individual freedom and collective action? How can you be free without going too far into an "every man for himself" direction
- What do you make of the ants' religion? Is their "devil" tied perhaps a little too closely to exterminators like Stan Beals? If they defeat him, does that necessarily solve their problems? Do you think the film respects the faith of the ants?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Ant Bully is rated PG for some mild rude humor and action. Some of the gags include a scene of insects sitting in a frog's digestive juices, ants swallowing drops of juice taken from a caterpillar's rear end, and an implied insect attack against an exterminator's crotch and rear end; Lucas is also naked at one point, but nothing is shown except his rear end, obscurely. The action scenes includes a wasp attack, a frog chase, a flood in the ant colony, and some bullying. The ants also have a religion of their own, with an Ant Mother who is called "the Queen of Queens," and a devil figure who seems to be based on human exterminators.
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from Film Forum, 08/03/06
The "ant"-agonist of John A. Davis's film The Ant Bully is a young boy named Lucas who takes out his aggression on a labyrinth of ants in his front yard. Fed up with persecution, the ants concoct a potion to bring Lucas down to bug-size and teach him about the consequences of his behavior.
You may find that there's something familiar about The Ant Bully. The bugs in this film are stylized just like the ants of the 1998 animated feature Antz, which featured an all-star voice cast, including Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, and Gene Hackman. The Ant Bully features the voices of Nicolas Cage, Julia Roberts, and Meryl Streep, and it is winning a lot of fans amongst critics.
"Go to the ant, thou bully; consider her ways, and be wise!" writes Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies). "That, in a nutshell, is the lesson of The Ant Bully. … The screenplay … is as obvious and direct as they come. But the animation is a pure delight, especially if you happen to enjoy looking at the world through a microscope."
Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) turns in a similar response, using the same scriptural reference (Proverbs 6:6). He concludes, "It might not hang with the best-looking films in the exploding category of digital animation, but Bully's world is bright, colorful, and detailed enough not to distract us from the storytelling. And what a fun, mostly positive, mostly kid-friendly story it is."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "The animation is imaginative and vibrant, highlighted by a terrific climax. … Annoying pop-culture references are thankfully absent. But, surprisingly, the A-list voice talent gives bland performances and the writing is less than sharp." He adds, "The film's subtext seems to be saying something about nations' abuse of power. … Of course any such political implication will be lost on the kiddies, whose antennae will be tuned to the story's simpler might-doesn't-make-right moral."
Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) says the movie "falls short. First, there's something unsettling to people of faith to see that Hollywood continues to rely on wizards and potions, alchemy and incantations to move a plot along. Have we not found more creative alternatives?" She's also uncomfortable with the way the ants praise their queen as "queen of queens," and say "Praise the mother." Finally, she says, "[T]here is something nebulously contrived, mechanical, and overdone about the story, and the writers seem to rely heavily on scatological humor to juice up their formulaic script."
Mainstream critics are pleased, if not enthusiastic, about The Ant Bully.