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The Ant Bully

(2006) ** 1/2 Pg
88 min. Warner Brothers. Director: John A. Davis. Cast: Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Paul Giamatti, Regina King.

On the one hand, The Ant Bully resembles most CGI-animated family films these days. There's the star-studded voice cast that includes Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, Paul Giamatti, Lily Tomlin, and Meryl Streep, and the animation that's simultaneously impressive and less vibrant than hand-drawn animation. But The Ant Bully—adapted by Jimmy Neutron creator John A. Davis from John Nickle's book—has an ace in its anthill: it's quietly profound.

When bullied boy Lucas (Zach Tyler Eisen) turns his pent-up aggression on an ant colony, the ants must respond. Cage's wizard ant Zoc shrinks Lucas, Streep's wise Queen sentences him to live as an ant, and Roberts' kind-hearted ant volunteers to train him. The resulting story of culture shock and gradual perception shifts deals with life at war: while Lucas has been neutralized as a threat, Giamatti's devilish exterminator (from Beals-a-Bug Pest Control) looms large.

"I'm big, and you're small" is the film's negative-example lesson, spouted first by Lucas' bully and then parroted by our petulant hero as he passes on the sting of victimization to the ants. Davis also works in an amusing scale joke that doubles as a reminder to have perspective: a firecracker that's thunderous to the ants makes only a small poof when seen in a long shot. The deep bench of vocal talent extends to Regina King, Ricardo Montalban, Cheri Oteri, Larry Miller, and Bruce Campbell, the camp hero ideally cast as an overeager Scout Ant.

Davis' film is reasonably funny and stokes enough action to please kids, but it's the political allegory that separates this one from the pack. Montalban's Head of Council grumbles, "To attack without provocation, without reason, just because they can—it's barbaric." The Ant Bully endorses opening lines of communication, but also implicitly acknowledges that a strong defense is necessary when communication proves impossible.

The best—and most surprising—scene finds Zoc and Lucas comparing the colony's Communist ethic to the "Every man for himself" lifestyle of human cities. Though the global implications will soar over kids' heads, the provocative cultural critique will give parents more to ponder than the average kiddie outing.

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