Actress-singer China Anne McClain is the latest tween to get the Disney Channel star treatment, which starts with a goofy, slapstick series and, in the cases of Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato and Hilary Duff, has added musicvideos, a clothing/toy line, an eye toward made-for-TV/movie deals and a future option for personal scandal. Still given its star-making track record, the brand’s success rate surpasses that of “American Idol.” “A.N.T. Farm” is just such a vehicle, though this time, the model feels a bit rusty.
Though it hardly reflects the U.S. educational system, arts in the schools are thriving according to television, and here provide a haven for precocious, talented and extremely lucky kids like Chyna Parks (McClain), who’s part of the Advanced Natural Talents program (A.N.T.) that promotes young geniuses into high school.
As if the academic environment weren’t competitive enough, 11-year-old Chyna, budding artist Fletcher (Jake Short) and the spazzy but brilliant Olivia (Sierra McCormick) are thrown into a social snake pit with the deck stacked against them. They can’t even make it down the hall without getting caught in a fast-moving current of much bigger students. Chyna’s older brother Cameron (Carlon Jeffery), trying to make a name for himself with the right people, isn’t happy about his much younger — and more talented — sister invading his turf. He and head cheerleader Lexi (Stefanie Scott), also jealous of Chyna’s talent, make life rough on the assorted A.N.T.’s, who hide out in a room they call the farm with various other oddballs, including a child-like guidance counselor with questionable qualifications.
Like most shows of this kind, parents and adults are inept, and the kids are the only ones with any savvy. Headstrong Chyna helps her friends to break out of their farm and into real high-school world experiences. The problem is, the reality of high school these days is so brutal that “A.N.T. Farm’s” fish-out-of-water thrust comes across as pure fantasy and fluff.
McClain, known best for “House of Payne” and stints on “Hannah Montana” and “Wizards of Waverly Place,” is perfectly appealing with a knack for comedic timing. She and co-stars McCormick and Short play off of their characters well and pull off some pretty impressive sight gags. To his credit, show creator Dan Signer (“The Suite Life on Deck”) knows what makes kids laugh, and seem devoted to the idea that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.