What a pleasant surprise to find a computer-animated kidpic without the constant chatter, in which the backgrounds aren’t virtual but all-natural, and cute cartoon critters frolic against handsome outdoor footage shot in the south of France. While the story skews young — so nonthreatening as to justify some toddlers’ first trip to the cinema — Futurikon’s simple-minded “Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants” has been a massive hit in France, where it capitalizes on the success of a beloved short-form TV series. Though the U.S. marketplace remains stubbornly resistant to foreign-made toons, this dialogue-free offering should export well to other territories.
On the tube, “Minuscule” unspooled in tight, 6-minute episodes, as CG insects went about their modest adventures amidst the French countryside. At feature length, the approach grows a bit tiresome, and though directors Thomas Szabo and Helene Giraud don’t always manage to sustain our interest, they have at least tried to think big, making epics out of anthills with modest, yet effective animation, nicely complimented by lush cinematography (lensed in Provence) and a sweet score that’s anything but antic.
Far removed from civilization, the excursion opens with a bird’s eye wink at mankind: a young couple, out for a romantic afternoon drive in their bright red VW bug. This is not their story; rather, it follows the fate of their picnic supplies, left behind for tiny scavengers. In this spirit, a title card trumpets the heroism of a lone ladybug — the William Wallace of the insect world, Braveheart of the bugs — whom we see abandoned by his family and adopted by a colony of black ants under full-scale attack by a rival red-ant faction.
This mostly-insect cast, who never speak but gleefully toot sound effects from both ends, function as the most rudimentary of animated characters, their simple CG bodies adorned with googly eyes — the sort preschoolers paste to arts-and-crafts projects, in which poppy seed-sized specks wiggle in tiny plastic hemispheres. Even without the relatively dazzling, gem-like orbs seen on most American cartoon characters, these critters are capable of a wide range of amusing expressions, their simple design and silly behavior accounting for most of their appeal.
From time to time, the ladybug bumps into larger creatures intent on eating him — a frog, a fish and a lizard as terrifying in its scale as the T-rex must have seemed to the humans in “Jurassic Park.” Animation-wise, these animals aren’t nearly as endearing, neither cartoony nor especially realistic. The same goes for a range of virtual props that factor into the battle between the black and red ants. The attackers fire slingshots and carry a can of bug spray (a toxic weapon for both sides), while the defending black-ant colony hordes a stockpile of fireworks, but only one match.
With echoes of 2006’s “The Ant Bully,” this drawn-out siege scenario plays like a slow-burning house fire, and it makes little sense that the wounded ladybug should be the one to save the day. In reality, a ladybug can’t regenerate a lost wing any more easily than humans can regrow a missing limb. But “Minuscule” never purported to be educational, and for all its manufactured excitement, the results pale in comparison with the insect-centric wonderment of “Microcosmos,” a French pic that recognized real-world insects as plenty fascinating in their own right.