Joining an endless train of forgettable summer family fare, Ant Bully is less memorable than most, except for its rare combination of moralism and excrement. As the lessons come flowing from the mouths of the human-oppressed ants, we learn that, unlike in the human world, in the ant world “differences make a colony strong.” Though the reverence bestowed upon the queen ant would hardly seem to qualify the ant world as a paragon of decentralized democracy, it would be churlish to let thought interrupt the moralistic sermonizing of this film. Generally praised by mainstream critics, one of whom calls the film “an epic adventure with a rigorously moral point of view,” Ant Bully is in fact a dull, preachy, incoherent, and poop-joke laden exhortation to celebrate difference and equality.
Ant Bully features Lucas (voiced by Zach Tyler Eisen) as an undersized boy who suffers the typical childhood indignities at the hands of the neighborhood bully. When it comes to justice in the ’hood, size is everything. Frustrated over his subordinate status and his alienation from his well-intentioned but clueless parents (Cheri Oteri and Larry Miller), Lucas vents his frustration by hosing down a large ant colony in his front yard.
The film is at its visual best when it shifts perspectives from human to ant and back again. There are some great opening scenes, particularly those from within the ant colony — a cavernous underground world through which tides of water cascade as a result of Lucas’s flood. Later, a firecracker seen from the ant perspective looks like a giant missile; just as it goes off, the camera shifts to the vantage point of the front yard and records nothing more than a barely audible pop and a glimmer of smoke.
Inside the colony, the ants are busy, and not just with the task of expanding their home. Tired of being disrespected by the big bully humans, the ants have geopolitics in mind. Declaring war on the humans, the ant wizard (Nicholas Cage) develops a potion that shrinks Lucas down to ant size and renders him susceptible to capture and trial. Debate among the ants focuses on the options of “destroying” him or “changing his nature” to make him an ant. The ants inflict the latter sentence and force him to join in all sorts of ant activities. Initially resistant, Lucas, quite predictably, begins to see the world from the ant perspective, even to the point of organizing resistance against predators, particularly the exterminator (Paul Giamatti). As is often the case in stories that reduce goodness to saccharine platitudes, the bad character begins to appear more attractive. In this case, the exterminator, whose company’s name, Beals-a-Bug, nicely captures his demonic delight in insect destruction, is by far the most entertaining character in the film.
The key moment in ant pedagogy occurs when, in response to Lucas’s observation that “Some humans prefer to clobber people they don’t understand,” an ant responds, “Like you with the ants.” Okay, we get it.
There are, of course, important lessons to be instilled in children concerning equality and the ability to see the world from others’ points of view. One of the best conversations on the topic occurs in the film version of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, when Atticus explains to his daughter Scout the meaning of compromise; at one point he comments on the need to crawl around inside someone else’s skin and see the world from his perspective. But that exchange is embedded within a wonderfully rich story about prejudice and justice, just the sort of thing that could prompt fruitful conversation between children and adults.
In Ant Bully there is little to go on, except perhaps the stipulation that we all adopt a policy of walking gingerly through our yards lest we kill an unfortunate ant. What would be lost if Harper Lee’s novel had been named To Kill an Ant? A good deal, I’d wager. Still, Ant Bully is a genuine achievement in the genre of sentimental defenses of equality featuring scatological humor.