This all happens in the film The Ant Bully, but, except for the bug business, it sounds curiously like a summary of Saddam Hussein's last several years. It's a kid's film, though, and, unsurprisingly, the tyke tyrant, Lucas, avoids the death sentence and gets taught a few valuable lessons about the sanctity of all life, evolving from villain to hero faster than you can say "fantasy film."
At first glance, The Ant Bully is derivative of two relatively recent animated-insect movies: Antz and A Bug's Life (both from 1998). The ants in Bully do look a bit like they did in Antz, and the setting -- the tiny, creepy-crawly world -- is similar in all three. Unlike those earlier films, though, the Bully critters clearly don't exist in the "real world." The occasional nod is made to biological correctness, but Bully's anthropomorphic blue-eyed beasties have one thing over their cousins of those other films: They can perform magic.
This is no nature film. Its intent is pure fantasy, and it continually pays homage to the ultimate fantasy film series, Star Wars, littering the narrative with unabashed musical, visual, and storyline quotes. That the movie has a scene in which Paul Giamatti's character is, basically, the Death Star being attacked by ants riding X-wing-fighter-like wasps is delightfully fun.
Known overactor Nicolas Cage gives voice to the ant Zoc, and though Cage sells his lines with the naked earnestness that he normally exhibits in his films, it's a positive attribute for an animated kid's film. Julia Roberts is solid but unmemorable as the ant Hova, and Lily Tomlin is especially impressive as Lucas' grandmother, Mommo, capturing not just an elderly woman but one whose false teeth keep falling out.
Bully is hamstrung by a limp first half, frequently flat comedy, and tortuous lines of dialogue that are sentimental (of Lucas' tears, an ant asks, "Is that what humans do when they're sad?") or trite kid-speak ("Awesome! Yeah!"). The children in the audience at a recent preview screening even groaned a few times at the dialogue.
The animation is inconsistent, tending toward the cartoonish but with moments of photorealism that make you wish the whole movie looked that good. Most of the action set pieces are well executed, though, and the ant colony looks like it sprang from the mind of H.R. Giger.
Ant Bully may not exist in our world, but the fantasies it offers are pleasant enough: You will believe that a tyrant can right his wicked ways.
The Ant Bully
Opening Friday, July 28th