As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport.
-- King Lear
Lucas is a pretty normal growing kid: Put-upon, picked-on ... and, in this computer-generated animation version of the children's book The Ant Bully, pixilated. Lucas (voiced by Zach Tyler) is a classic story-tale kid -- young enough to be treated like he's little (and called 'Peanut' -- blech) yet old enough to have big problems ... namely, the pack of bullies who hound, harass and wedgie him. Lashing out, Lucas unleashes his anger on the front-yard anthill, which, as the camera zooms in, is a megapolis of talking, industrious individuals who speak in hushed tones about the disasters and atrocities perpetrated by the capricious behemoth they only know as "Peanut, the destroyer."
For the residents of the colony -- including magician Zoc (voiced by Nicolas Cage), his partner Hova (Julia Roberts), bluff scout Fugax (Bruce Campbell) and hearty forager ant Kreela (Regina King) -- Lucas's brief fits of pique are slaughterous disasters, floods and furies sent by a cruel universe. Zoc, though, has a plan: He'll use his magic to shrink Peanut down to their size ... and then something like justice will be done.
Watching director John A. Davis pop from the macro to the micro in The Ant Bully is but one of the film's many pleasures: Small events become terrifying viewed up close, ant apocalypses but small events in the scope of human affairs. But the biggest pleasure isn't that visual sense of play, the star-studded voice cast (a casual count shows six Oscar nominees -- and three winners -- among the actors), or the high-gloss, undoubtedly expensive computer animation that nonetheless manages to be artful above and beyond the gleam of money spent. The biggest pleasure in The Ant Bully is its adherence to a simple, plain-spoken and iron-strong storyline -- something too many kids' film abandon in favor of a dizzying, tiresome frenzy of in-jokes, throw-away gags for adults and clumsily tangled plot lines. That's not to say that there aren't plot complications in The Ant Bully -- namely, long before he was shrunk down to a more gentle point-of-view, Lucas booked an appointment to have the lawn sprayed by Stan Beals (Paul Giamatti), the toxic terror of Beals-a-Bug Extermination Services. But that's it: No other real subplots, no digressions that linger too long with supporting characters like Lucas' Gramma (Lily Tomlin) or anyone else. Lucas is thoughtlessly cruel; Lucas thinks about what he's done; the ants and Lucas work together to drive Beals away. And there it is, at a quick but never rushed, get-in, get-on-with-it, get-out 80 minutes.
Based on John Nickle's kids' book, The Ant Bully is tastefully animated -- the humans in it may have the soft ice cream cone look (pointy tops, wide middles tapering down to tiny feet) of Davis's previous Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius animation, but the ants and other insects look great -- real, but not too real, with fantasies grounded in reality. For example, at one point Hova bats the huge, sad eyes of a Keane painting, but you can see her compound facets; the cybernetic-looking wasps have vertical mouths that gnash and grind with menace.
The Ant Bully is also not shy about depicting nature red in tooth and claw, as Tennyson put it. The colony may be a place of harmony and grace (led by an ethereal-sounding Meryl Streep as a huge, warm matriarch) but it's besieged by forces outside it -- frogs, wasps, kids -- and we glimpse how community is survival for the ants ... a lesson Lucas learns, as well.
But don't worry that The Ant Bully is a mealy-mouthed parable about it taking a village (or, as one of the resident idiots at Ain't it Cool News suggested, a propaganda piece for the Communist Manifesto, which is, in fact, the dumbest thing I've heard all month, and I live in California). It is also cracking fun, from high-flying derring-do to wit and charm in small jokes peppered throughout the film. (Over one of the first ant shots, we hear the high, keening, "Neeeeeee-eeeeeee-eeeeeeeee" sound effect used in Them!, one of the greatest monster movies ever made; this is a joke aimed at a pretty small constituency, but as a member of that group, it cracked me up.) And the vocal performances are nicely done as well -- Cage gets to be goofy, while Campbell proves you don't have to physically be in a film to swagger though your scenes. And when one of the Colony's leaders rails against Lucas's cruelties -- "To attack without reason, without provocation, just because they can ... it's barbaric!" -- and you recognize the wood-aged, rich oak voice of Ricardo Montalban, you can't help but smile.
The metaphorical field of animation has been dotted with insect hives in recent years (A Bug's Life, Antz), and more are on the way (Jerry Seinfeld's Bee Movie, to name but one). But The Ant Bully manages to stand out from the pack of not just six-legged kids' films but also from most recent entries into the genre by sticking to story, story, story. Like the bugs it celebrates, The Ant Bully is a lot stronger than you'd think -- and, with Pixar running low on creative gas and Dreamworks/PDI working on more Shrek drek, it's one of the best kids' films of the year.