Released one week after “Monster House”, the two films have a number of striking similarities beyond the obvious use of computer generated animation. These similarities only serve to force an unfavorable comparison to the newer film.
But first, the story…
Lucas (Zach Tyler), a boy small for his age, finds it difficult to live in his suburban neighborhood; a large bully leads a gang of kids around and Lucas is the frequent object of their atomic wedgies and dog piles. Powerless, he takes his aggressions out on an ant colony in his front yard. He has become such a constant threat to the colony they have named him Lucas the Destroyer. Lucas’ parents depart for a second honeymoon to ‘Puerko Vallcarta’, leaving Lucas and his older sister, Tiffany (Allison Mack), in the care of their alien obsessed grandmother, Mommo (Lily Tomlin). Zoc (Nicholas Cage), the wizard of the ant colony, creates a potion designed to shrink humans down to their size and leads an expedition including Hova (Julia Roberts), Kreela (Regina King) and Fugax (Bruce Campbell) to test the potion on Lucas. After Lucas has shrunk down, they return to the ant colony, where the Queen (Meryl Streep) declares that Lucas must live with them, become one of them. Hova decides to care for Lucas and teach him the ways of the colony, much to Zoc’s dismay. As Lucas becomes familiar with the ways of the Any Colony, they must contend with a new enemy, Stan Beals (Paul Giamatti), the human exterminator.
Its interesting that two animated films released a week apart feature adventures of little boys who are essentially home alone. This is an effort to make the journey both more interesting and more dangerous, both of which would make it more meaningful. “Monster” does a better job of this. All children have some sort of a scary house situation in their childhood, the scary house no one wanted to go near. We can relate.
Because Lucas’ journey is more fantastical (yes, I know “Monster House” has a possessed house, but even so) it has to work harder to make the story even slightly believable. Ants running around, talking, with little miniature boys, is more of a stretch.
The animation is beautiful, filled with bright, vivid colors, evoking a summertime setting. When Lucas joins the ant colony, the blades of grass in his front yard become as tall as a forest. As the adventure moves to different areas, common objects take on an uncommon beauty; a puddle of water becomes a beautiful lake, a garden gnome becomes a huge sculpture. The color palette aids in making these familiar objects appear unusually interesting. The bright colors make all inanimate objects appear real.
But even this works against the film, in a way, making it seem more unrealistic. “Monster”, set during Halloween, is aided by a more somber color palette, perfectly evoking the fall setting. Again, its an animated film, but the darker colors help the filmmakers create a more interesting sense of reality.
All of the star power doesn’t really add to “Ant”. If you didn’t recognize the voices, you would be hard pressed to tell Nicholas Cage, Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep were in the film at all, let alone playing the ants; Streep has all of two scenes. In many animated films, the actors are cast for their personalities and they add an extra dimension to the character. Disney is particularly good at this, giving the same characters familiar facial features matching the actor; Robin Williams as the Genie in “Aladdin”, Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts in “Beauty and the Beast”, James Woods as Hades in “Hercules” are all memorable examples. In “Polar Express”, the filmmakers put Tom Hanks in a special suit and he portrayed a number of the characters, all of which were animated to resemble him. Putting aside the creepy factor, at least the characters had some personality. In “Ant”, nothing is done to differentiate the ant characters. They look different, but just slightly and the animators don’t imbue the creatures with the individual personalities of the actors. Paul Giamatti is the most successful because Stan is actually able to display some emotion, his eyes shifting to show his ulterior motives.
Another commonly used element in successful animated films in humor. Sometimes, it is too juvenile because the filmmakers are attempting to please only the children in the audience. Other films use humor to satisfy both young and old creating an experience to be remembered for a long time. Then, there is “Ant”. Long, long, long periods of the film go by with nary a chuckle. The two most promising elements, Stan Beals and Mommo (Lily Tomllin) do generate some laughs, but the story is about Lucas’ trip into the ant colony. During this portion of the film, the majority of the story, any humor is very juvenile and goes over with a thud.
The climatic fight between the ants and Stan is impressively done. The ants enlist a group of wasps to launch a war on the human and the camera follows them as they fly into battle. Each time Stan manages to swat a wasp away, we follow the winged insect’s descent. As the wasps fly over the terrain of the giant, it looks like they are coming in for a landing on an aircraft carrier. These movements help to give this sequence a roller coaster ride feel as the ants swoop in, flying over the terrain of the human’s body.
“The Ant Bully” is a bright, colorful film which will probably keep very young kids occupied for hours. Buy them the DVD and let them sit in front of the television. Or you could put in a Disney or Pixar film and expose them to a much better effort, something you could enjoy together. Or take them to a park and let them create their own adventures.