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Movie review: The Ant Bully ***

Movie-review-The-Ant-Bully

The Ant Bully - which is maybe the finest imitation of a Pixar feature yet (but without doubt, imitation goods) - comes plop in the middle of a year overstuffed with anthropomorphic digitally-animated barnyard and woodland creatures.

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Who among us hasn't instigated an ant hill genocide? An insect colony apocalypse? An arachnoid Saturday Night Massacre, right there in the cracks of the driveway, filled in with mini-mounds of sand and darting ants ripe for a small child with a water pistol? That's the idea behind the digitally-animated flick The Ant Bully - not to install vast plans of extinction in children's heads.

To get them to reconsider.

Good luck with that, Hollywood. If Finding Nemo couldn't swear a generation off the idea of bait-and-release fishing (which, however humane, is like slapping random people in the back of the head, then patting yourself on the back for not shooting them), what chance do intelligent, organizationally-minded bugs who speak English have?

The Ant Bully - which is maybe the finest imitation of a Pixar feature yet (but without doubt, imitation goods) - comes plop in the middle of a year overstuffed with anthropomorphic digitally-animated barnyard and woodland creatures. It could get lost in the flood. Indeed, Barnyard, featuring even more digitally-rendered multi-legged beasts, opens next Friday; while last Friday, the quite eerie and clever Monster House suggested that animators themselves have grown slightly tired of shy grizzlies and possums with attitude.

The Ant Bully goes it another step. Though Nicolas Cage and Julia Roberts loan their voices to a couple of ants, and the overall package appears fairly generic, it also suggests animators have become increasingly sophisticated with how they deliver the moralizing at the center of animated films - or rather, now the moral is as complex as it is overstated.

Ant Bully tells the story of a boy with no friends. For those who need something simple to tell the kids, tell 'em: He's picked on by bigger kids; one in particular says the reason for the torturing is "I'm big and you're small."

Yet everyone has their bully.

Frustrated and angry, Lucas (shrilly voiced by Zach Tyler Eisen) turns a garden hose on a nearby ant colony. Directed by John A. Davis, whose Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius was Oscar-nominated for best animated feature, what follows has shades of Twilight Zone minus the grim twist around the corner. Lucas is shrunk to insect size by Cage's amateur wizard ant, and forced to learn first-hand how foreign cultures are often as complicated and thoughtful as his own.

He just lacks imagination.

How was he supposed to know ants are loving, sentient beings, he screams. He makes friends, learns to carry nine times his own weight; though I still don't understand how a human who wills himself to scurry up walls (in the name of insect solidarity) could just make it so. There's a kindly ant (Roberts) who wants to ensure Lucas learns a lesson without becoming bitter from all the labor and communal living; there's a sassy ant (Regina King); a goofy ant (Bruce Campbell); the ethereal queen of the colony (Meryl Streep). Lucas is dubbed "Destroyer" but sets out to redeem himself with courageous acts in the war between ants and mosquitoes - mini fighter jets.

Though frantic as you'd expect, Ant Bully has a number of lovely touches to distinguish it. The colors are elegiac and muted; the vocal work has nuance.

It looks a great deal like A Bug's Life, but the sense of scale is more inventive. We're not just shown ants alongside leaves and branches but ants alongside full-sized humans. A squirt of water from a toy becomes a looping liquid ICBM. A floating tour of Lucas' home - courtesy of a leaf and oscillating fan - becomes an impromptu Around the World in Two Minutes, venturing past paintings of Italy and soaring over miniature pyramids. Conversely, when humans encroach on ants, the proportions are scary, each footfall a boom of far-away thunder, each cloud of insecticide a biological disaster.

What's truly different, though, is the message: Walk a mile in an ants' shoes. But also, work together. Work collectively for the greater good. If Antz from a few years back featured Woody Allen lending his fluttery stutter to an ant who longs to become an individual, Ant Bully is strange for 2006, a kid's pic that can be read as foreign-policy white paper with vague communist leanings.

Don't be so shocked.

These are red ants, after all.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.

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