Director/Screenplay – John A. Davis, Based on the Book by John Nickle, Producers – John A. Davis, Gary Goeztman & Tom Hanks, Photography – Ken Mitchroney, Music – John Debney, Animation – DNA Productions, Animation Supervisor – David Tart, Production Design – Barry E. Jackson. Production Company – Warner Brothers/Legendary Pictures/Playtone/DNA Productions
Zach Tyler Eisen (Lucas Nickle), Julia Roberts (Hova), Nicolas Cage (Zoc), Bruce Campbell (Fugax), Regina King (Kreela), Paul Giamatti (Stan Beals), Meryl Streep (Queen Ant), Allison Mack (Tiffany Nickle), Lily Tomlin (Mommo)
Bespectacled young Lucas Nickle is bullied by the larger kids in his neighbourhood. He takes his frustrations out by stomping on the ants on his front lawn and flooding their nest with a garden hose. Down in the nest, the ants live in terror of Lucas who they call The Destroyer. To combat the threat, the wizard Zoc comes up with a potion. The ants sneak into the house and place the potion inside Lucas’s ear, which reduces him down to ant size. Taken down to the nest, Lucas is sentenced to live as an ant does. Zoc’s girlfriend Hova takes Lucas under her wing and starts to teach him ant ways. Lucas soon comes to understand how the ants live and struggles to deal with the giant-sized menaces that they do. Lucas then realises that back when he was full-sized he has inadvertently signed up for an exterminator, someone that the ants regard as the predestined Cloud Breather who will destroy everything. He tries to marshal the ants together and find a way of stopping the exterminator.
The Ant Bully was the second film from director John A. Davis and his DNA Productions. Davis and DNA had previously made the modestly successful Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius (2001). The film is based on a children’s book, The Ant Bully (1999), by illustrator John Nickle. Alas for John A. Davis and DNA, The Ant Bully met with middling box-office and critical reception in the US in a year that was overstocked with a glut of animated films. Davis has yet to direct another film.
I was not that impressed by Jimmy Neutron, while the rack of mediocre reviews The Ant Bully received overseas left one feeling unenthused before sitting down to watch. (Although perhaps what was most funny about reading the US reviews were those that seemed determined to read the ant society as an attempt to preach Marxism/socialism in the guise of a children’s film). That said, I enjoyed The Ant Bully more than I was expecting to.
In many ways, The Ant Bully could be considered a sequel to Dreamworks’ more-than-amiable Antz (1998) – maybe you could see it as a conceptual collision between Antz and Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989). What I liked about the film was that it had an original concept – that of a young boy becoming ant-sized and then having to adjust to an alien way of looking at the world. John A. Davis’s screenplay develops this concept with some interest, even devoting time over to the notion of an ant religion and series of prophecies concerning the coming of the predestined Cloud Breather. In comparison to most other animated films out there at the moment, there is something about The Ant Bully that is determined to work on a conceptual level rather than engage in easy audience-pleasing pop culture references or features animated characters that are desperately trying to be hip.
The animation is extremely good. In Jimmy Neutron, Davis seemed to be making a film that wanted to open up into something artistic – especially during the scene where the fairground rides take flight as rockets. Davis largely construes The Ant Bully around various set-pieces, which all come impressively directed and drawn – the fierce attack on the ant colony by the wasps and Lucas’s saving the day with the Bada Bomb firecracker; the journey through the house and the lovely image of Lucas and the ants floating across the giant-sized living room on rose petals blown by the wind from a fan; the attack by a giant sinister frog; and the climactic scenes with the ants riding in to attack the exterminator on the backs of the wasps, which looks for all the world like something out of the Death Star trench sequence in Star Wars (1977).
The characters have standard arcs, notably the central character of Lucas who is just another variant on The Kid Who Learns Better. You feel that characters like Zoc and Hova should have engaged you a lot more than they do, although Bruce Campbell does stand out as the would-be heroic Fugax. For all the employment of names like Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin in voice parts, the characters they play are of negligible importance to the film and hardly appear.
What the film ultimately settles for tends to be feelgood emotions and an inevitable anti-bullying stance where the underdogs of the neighbourhood stand up against the main tyrant. Occasionally plot devices are a little too obviously wielded – the grandmother and her obsession with aliens and ever-so-convenient habit of placing fans on the floor (to set up the petal gliding sequence); Lucas’s accidental signing of the exterminator contract (which would surely be ruled as an unlawful coercion of a minor in any court of law). One wishes that a little more time had been placed on the central concept and the ant culture instead as this is a place where The Ant Bully does touch upon something original and imaginative.