Ant Bully, The

First, the good news: At 90-minutes, John A. Davis's rollicking good adventure, “The Ant Bully,” is the shortest movie this summer, including animations like “Cars,” not to speak of the other tent pole action-adventures, which run well over two hours.

Fulfilling the promise he showed in his 2001's Oscar-nominated “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius,” Davis has made another visually striking feature. Based on John Nickle's children's book of the same title, “Ant Bully” concerns a lonely, moody boy who, after torturing insects, is forced to live with them and learn a few lessons about humility, humanity, and togetherness.

For the most part, “Ant Bully” provides a wonderful blend of thrills, characters and humor that will keep both children and adults charmed and engaged throughout. Despite being chatty, generic, and undernourished in plot, the movie is almost consistently inventive, containing enough bravura effects to keep youngsters interested.

Davis has retained the structure and meaning of Nickle's book, staying true to the central journey, but his movie expands the scope of Lucas adventures to include additional characters and relationships, obstacles and motives. And it's this expansion, which proves problematic.

The film's high-concept is not exactly fresh. Inevitable comparisons will be made with Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson's romantic-comedy adventure “Antz,” the 1998 computer-animation, which was also set in an underground ant colony.

Yet the two films differ in tone and ideology. If “Antz” dwells on the American myth of individualism as antidote to conformity, glorifying freedom as the most cherished virtue, “Ant Bully” preaches for co-existence, understanding, and collectivism, while not neglecting individualism, by suggesting that each person has a special talent to cultivate (See detailed analysis below).

The film's protagonist is Lucas Nickle (Zach Tyler Eisen), a ten-year-old who recently moved to a new city, but hasnt made any friends. He gets grief from his teenage sister Tiffany (Allison Mack), and not much attention from his parents (Cheri Oteri and Larry Miller), who are busy planning their anniversary weekend in Puerto Vallarta. Meanwhile, Lucas's loving but kooky grandmother Mommo (Lily Tomlin) is trying to protect the family from space aliens she had read about in supermarket magazines. To make matters worse, Lucas is the target of neighborhood bully Steve, who pushes him around.

Not a saint exactly, Lucas retaliates by venting his anger and frustration on the defenseless mounds of dirt and their tiny inhabitants, kicking, stomping, and squirting the insects with the garden hose. Unbeknownst to Lucas, there is a whole world underneath his sneakered feet, and what he perceives as just a bunch of stupid ants are actually members of a complex and sophisticated society, with names and relationships, responsibilities and emotions. Getting tired of having their homes trampled by Lucas (“The Destroyer”), the ants plan to fight back.

Wizard Ant Zoc (Nicolas Cage) drops his magic potion in Lucas ear, and he is shrunken down to ant size, taken below the anthill to stand trial. When the head of the Ant Council (Ricardo Montalban) proclaims Lucas guilty of crimes against the colony, the wise Ant Queen (Meryl Streep) sentences him to live among the ants and learn their ways to earn his freedom.

Finding himself in an incredible landscape teeming with life and danger, Lucas embarks on a big adventure. Against Zocs wishes, his kind girlfriend, Nurse Ant Hova (Julia Roberts), volunteers to mentor Lucas, hoping to teach him the colony's ways and help him find his one special talent. Assisted by colony comrades, no-nonsense Forager Ant Kreela (Regina King) and garrulous Scout Ant Fugax (Bruce Campbell), Hova manages to keep Lucas out of greedy frogs and marauding wasps.

Lucass new ant skills are put to test, when he is asked to help his friends defend the colony against annihilation from the greasy and growling exterminator Stan Beals (Paul Giamatti), in epic life-and-death struggle waged on Lucas's front lawn. In the process, he learns valuable lessons about friendship, compassion, teamwork and loyalty, and also gains courage to stand up for himself against all odds.

Main problem for older kids (and adults) is the imbalance or disproportion between the messagy sequences that espouse values of collaboration, decency and tolerance and the terrific visual action sequences. Hence, Hova tells Lucas: “You just need to discover the ant within.” Ultimately, some will fault the picture for containing too much talk and not enough visual razzle-dazzle.

At its best, “Ant Bully” offers half a dozen grandiose adventures that involve wasp attacks, hungry bullfrogs, a mission to retrieve jelly beans from Lucas's kitchen, and so on

At its worse, though, the movie, particularly second half, suffers from an obvious and overwritten scenario. To some extent, the gap prevailing between the film's visually sophisticated look and its more conventional text is inevitable. It's a disparity that marks all of Hollywood 's genres these days, including live-action adventures like “Superman Returns” and the new “Pirates” pictures.

Even so, “Ant Bully” boasts a superb 3-D look and highly imaginative color design, with stunning backgrounds and exquisite caverns and tunnels that make up the colony. Unlike “Antz,” where some of the most visually imaginative scenes take place outside the colony, with Z and the Princess encountering snooty wasps (Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin), a menacing magnifying glass, and sneakers worn by a human being, the most thrilling elements in “Ant Bully” are within the colony.

As director, Davis is adept with shifts of scale, perspective, and POV. It's a pleasure to observe an exploding firecracker, seen and heard first at ground level, then from a human's perspective. When you first see the ants from Lucas vantage point, they look like real ants, small and indistinct, the way we would view them from the distance of our human height. But when cut down to their level, we see they have individual expressive faces, which makes us realize that things are not always what they seem.

Far from the early days of DNA Productions first projects, when company founders John Davis and Keith Alcorn performed all the voices themselves for their animated shorts, “Ant Bully” attracted a stellar voice cast, including Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Paul Giamatti, Regina King, Lily Tomlin, Ricardo Montalban, and others.

Similar films, different ideologies

Twenty years ago, we went underneath with David Lynch in “Blue Velvet,” to shockingly discover vibrant life under the grass out on our front yards. I mention that because, on one level, “Ant Bully” is like a cheerful version of Lynch's dark and noirish vision of ants fighting ants.

“What human being hasnt fantasized about being the size of an ant and living in their world,” producer Tom Hanks is quoted of saying in the press notes. Indeed, the appeal of a movie like “Ant Bully” rests on the universal fantasy of imagining life underneath, and also on the fear of being shrunk in size, a notion exploited in sci-fi as well as comedies, such “The Incredible Shrinking Man” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

In the latter, you may recall, Rick Moranis plays Prof. Wayne Szlainski, a nutty inventor who tries to create a machine that will shrink living things. When the professor's kids and their friends accidentally activate the machine, they are all shrunk to quarter-inch size, thus beginning a dangerous adventure from the rash can through the seemingly gargantuan back yard to the safety of their house.

Finally, a word about the film's ideology, both manifest and latent. In “Antz,” Woody Allen plays Z, an unhappy worker who rebels against his designated role in a rigid caste system, unlike his friends, the soldier Weaver (Sylvester Stallone), and laborer Azteca (Jennifer Lopez), who follow orders in the totalitarian colony. Gene Hackman's General Mandible is a power-hungry individual who secretly plans to destroy the worker ants and create his own “perfect” society. However, Princess Bala (Sharon Stone), about to marry the General, is also a rebel at heart, and whey she meets Z by chance, they bond together as adventurers in Insectopia, a paradise full of opportunities.

In contrast, in “Ant Bully,” once below ground, Lucas is both amazed and nervous to discover that the ants have a vast and complex civilization with rules and responsibility, where every individual has a job to do for the greater good and collective welfare, yet also has the need to cultivate his/her idiosyncratic qualities and gifts.

Hence, if the left-winged “Antz” propagates individualism and non-conformity at all cost, “Ant Bully” is ideologically more centrist, preaching for a moderate version of collectivism (but not socialism), one that allows individual development within its structure.

Imax version

Produced by Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman and John A. Davis, “Ant Bully” will simultaneously debut in select IMAX theaters as “The Ant Bully: An IMAX 3D Experience.” Digitally converting the films original 3-D modeling into IMAX 3D, and featuring proprietary IMAX DMR (Digital Re-mastering) technology, it offers moviegoers a uniquely immersive perspective on Lucas adventures into this wondrous world.

End note

Over the past decade, what used to be Disney's specialty has been appropriated by every studio in town. A recent report indicated that about 30-40 such films would be released this year. Can the market support so many family-oriented animated features