Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Nicolas Cage, Julia Roberts, Paul Giamatti, Bruce Campbell, Meryl Streep, Regina King, Ricardo Montalban, Cheri Oteri, Lily Tomlin, Zach Tyler
Written by: John A. Davis, based on the book by John Nickle
Directed by: John A. Davis
MPAA Rating: PG for some mild rude humor and action
Running Time: 88
Date: 07/28/2006
IMDB

The Ant Bully (2006)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Inner 'Ant'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It doesn't seem so long ago that studios cast animated feature films according to the personalities of the characters, finding voices best suited for an emotional match. In 1991, Robby Benson was a more or less washed up former teen idol, but who else could have made a better Beast in Disney's Beauty and the Beast?

Now everything is stunt casting and agency packages, and so in The Ant Bully, we have Nicolas Cage's complex, hangdog voice coming out of a single-minded wizard ant called Zoc. And Meryl Streep, whose actorly richness knows no bounds (just watch her back to back in A Prairie Home Companion and The Devil Wears Prada), spouting a few regally monotone lines as the Queen Ant -- a job nearly anyone could have done.

That's just one of the annoyingly typical things about The Ant Bully. In the current CG-animated family film factory, only a few things matter besides casting, and that's merchandizing, some kind of obligatory, yet heavy-handed message about cooperation or selflessness, and an array of jokes about human bodily functions. (Only the Pixar films, with their unusual focus on good screenplays, rise above this.)

Otherwise, The Ant Bully is a fairly inoffensive affair -- the first joke about intestinal gas comes 25 minutes in -- and also includes a few parent rousing laughs.

Borrowed from a book by John Nickle, and written and directed by John A. Davis (Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius), the story starts with nerdy Lucas (voiced by Zach Tyler) suffering at the hands of a neighborhood bully. He takes out his frustrations by firing water pistols at an anthill, little realizing the horror and destruction he's causing from their diminutive point of view. When Zoc's formula succeeds, Lucas is captured. But instead of punishing him, the Queen decides to teach him about the life of an ant, and so Zoc's girlfriend Hova (voiced by -- of all people -- Julia Roberts) becomes his trainer.

The expected follows: the characters' simple, black-and-white behavior patterns slowly turn for the better. Lucas learns not to be so self-absorbed, and Zoc learns to trust others. Meanwhile, we get lots of chases and escapes, notably from a giant-sized exterminator voiced with growling gusto by Paul Giamatti.

Where the movie really comes to life, and where the casting agent scored big, is in Bruce Campbell as the arrogant, oversexed hunter ant Fugax. Best known for his starring roles in the Evil Dead films, Campbell has a gift for seeming amused by -- and slightly ahead of -- whatever material he's working on. His heroic, yet wry voice has a way of electrifying his dialogue and finding jokes where there are none. (Patrick Warburton accomplishes much the same thing in his voice outings, such as The Emperor's New Groove and Hoodwinked.)

Basically Campbell provides a hint of carefree wiggle room when the rest of the production is controlled to within an inch of its life. These CG family films may mean big business, but what's the point if the main ingredient -- the fun -- has been squeezed out?

(This review also appeared -- slightly shortened -- in the Las Vegas Weekly.)

(See also my interview with John A. Davis at cinematical.com)

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