Following the mindset of so many recent CG kidpics — the gabbier the script, the better — “The Ant Bully” is lovely to look at but a headache to listen to. Visually dazzling cross between “Antz” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” follows a boy forced to live among insects, with extremely noisy and (there’s no other word for it) antic results. Launching the pic on Imax screens day-and-date with its July 28 release, Warner Bros. can expect strong family turnout for its third film of the summer, after “Superman Returns” and “Lady in the Water,” produced and co-financed by Legendary Pictures.
Adapted by helmer John A. Davis (2001’s Oscar-nominated “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius”) from John Nickle’s children’s book, “The Ant Bully” floats the fanciful collectivist notion that humans — in this case, a moody 10-year-old named Lucas (voiced by Zach Tyler Eisen) — could learn a thing or two about selflessness and teamwork from the insect world.
Repeatedly terrorized by an oversized neighborhood bully, pipsqueak Lucas turns his feelings of anger and helplessness on an ant colony dwelling on his parents’ front lawn. He’s unaware the mound is in fact a highly sophisticated community whose six-legged members have apparently evolved the ability to speak English, perform magic and narrate their history through hieroglyphics.
Shortly after Lucas floods their colony with a garden hose (in a strikingly animated sequence), ant wizard Zoc (Nicolas Cage) sneaks into the boy’s bedroom and administers a potion that brings him literally down to size. Previously known throughout the colony as the Destroyer, the now-little Lucas is brought before the ant queen (speaking in the regal tones of Meryl Streep), who decrees the boy live among the ants and be schooled in their ways.
Zoc’s kindly girlfriend, Hova (Julia Roberts), volunteers to serve as Lucas’ teacher and guardian, with help from Kreela (Regina King), a sassy female ant, and Fugax (a hammy Bruce Campbell), a lecherous drone with unusually prominent mandibles. And so begins a series of consistently eye-popping if not especially fresh adventures involving wasp attacks, hungry bullfrogs, a mission to retrieve jelly beans from Lucas’ kitchen counter and a climactic battle against an odious exterminator (Paul Giamatti).
Where “Antz” hinged on its Woody Allen-voiced protagonist’s embrace of individualism, “The Ant Bully,” with its earnest endorsement of unity, conformity and self-sacrifice for the greater good, at times suggests a communist recruitment video. (Is it at all significant that these are red ants?)
Aside from a weakness for spelling out its themes (“You just need to discover the ant within,” Hova tells Lucas), the leaden, unamusing script feels obvious and overwritten, with several of the characters spewing belligerent sarcasm on cue. Worst offenders are Zoc and the unsympathetic Lucas, and the actors voicing both characters crank up the volume to obnoxious levels.
As visually sophisticated as it is verbally flatfooted, the pic realizes its magnified environs with a superbly stylized 3-D look and highly imaginative use of color. Backgrounds are stunning, particularly the caverns and tunnels that make up the colony, which have a magnificent, palatial quality. Non-human character detail is especially sharp and expressive, such as the way the wasps’ gleaming, pod-like bodies aptly resemble fighter aircraft.
Davis fluidly orchestrates the pic’s games with perception and dynamic shifts in scale (an exploding firecracker, seen and heard first at ground level, then from a human’s perspective, supplies more wit than anything in the screenplay). Project reteams the helmer with a number of his “Jimmy Neutron” collaborators, including editor Jon Price and composer John Debney, who wrote the memorably tuneful score.
Lucas spends a lot of time running around in the buff after being downsized, but pic cleverly hides the naughty bits. Lack of modesty in the later going, however, was apparently enough to warrant a PG rating.