The Ant Bully is based upon a very short children’s book by John Nickle, a beautifully drawn if crudely told tale of a boy named Lucas, who sports Coke-bottle glasses and a propeller skullcap and is picked on by a buzz-cut bully named Sid. Lucas, prone to tantrums and crying jags, decides he too will become a tormentor of those smaller than he—in this case, the ants living in the pile in his front yard. This being a book for children, there are myriad lessons to be learned, and Lucas is ultimately reduced to the size of his victims and forced to live and work among the ants. John Davis, the director of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, has made small alterations to Nickle’s tale in order to render it a feature; he’s also cast it with the requisite big names, among them Nic Cage, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, and Paul Giamatti.
It still plays very much like a kid’s book blown up for the big screen, and it withstands the transition precisely because it doesn’t exist to sell things; it’s no Happy Meal infomercial, no impulse-item huckster. It exists in a world of its own, one bereft of popular culture save for the handheld video game into which Lucas retreats for companionship. Though it lacks the Pixar razzle-dazzle of A Bug’s Life or the neurotic charm of Antz, The Ant Bully isn’t meant to play grown-up; it’s a kids’ movie for kids, and Davis approaches it as though he and his cast are merely storytellers trying to reach kids rather than show-offs trying to impress their parents. It has little of the wink-wink that animated movies include when they’re trying to keep the old people awake.
The Ant Bully has little in common with its bug’s-life predecessors; rather, it’s sort of the perfect companion to the brand-new Monster House, in which a young boy fears that which he doesn’t understand and ultimately comes to befriend the man he always thought meant him harm. There’s hope yet for the animated movie, which has been hijacked by marketers looking to off-load plush product on gimme-gimme kids and their put-upon parents. The Ant Bully‘s just a little movie about a little guy who turns into a little bug for a little while, and learns some big things in the process—and sometimes, a little can go a very long way.