Movies

A Mile-High Moral On a Millimeter Scale

'Ant Bully' Packs Visual and Virtuous Punch

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 28, 2006; Page C01

Hmmm, review first, or inappropriate rant? Let's decide by the sound principle of random drift in the universe. Out comes the coin, flip goes the dime and . . . review first. That's really best. You can read from here, skip the rant part and feel well serviced by today's newspapers.

Accordingly, we are oh-so-happy to report that "The Ant Bully" is superb, both as technical exercise and moral treatise. It boasts shrewd psychology into the nature of anger and violence. It makes the point that those who feel oppressed and unloved are far more likely to pass the upshot of oppression and lovelessness (i.e. violence) to those below in the pyramid of power.


Zach Tyler voices Lucas Nickle, a twerp who learns a lesson in empathy.
Zach Tyler voices Lucas Nickle, a twerp who learns a lesson in empathy. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

What does it take to reverse such a cycle? The answer here is a change of perspective accompanied by an investment of empathy. That's so wise! You know what it feels like to get it in the teeth, so when you pass it along to someone else's teeth -- that is, someone smaller and weaker -- it feels so good! However, if you're suddenly placed in the shoes of that smaller, weaker person and you see yourself as you really are -- a bully -- then possibly you will find the inner strength to stop the anger and the fear and the violence. What a great concept.

"The Ant Bully" dramatizes this idea in state-of-the-art, literally awesome computer-generated imagery. As a neighborhood chump regularly creamed by older, tougher kids, young Lucas Nickle (read by Zach Tyler) now and then takes his rage out on the backyard anthill. Like the Old Testament God, and equally empowered by rage, he power-soaks their world, unleashing biblical torrents to sweep them away.

But down there in the ant world, they ain't so dumb. They don't like the volume equivalent of 40 days and 40 nights of H20 being dumped upon them at the whim of an angry child. And a wizard figures out some chemical stuff (who knew ant science was so advanced?) that is capable of shrinkage on a massive scale. Slipping into Lucas's bedroom, they squirt some bug juice down his ear canal and -- hello, 15-millimeter boy!

Reduced and quickly learning (stay with me here, folks) that ants speak English rather better than most people, he accompanies his new colleagues on an extraordinary adventure. That mundane back yard? It's a lush and verdant Eden. The scuttling micro-beings, barely recognizable from four feet up? They're an ancient civilization, handsome, valiant, organized, where each gives according to his means and each receives according to his need. Why, it's like . . . utopia. Everybody's happy, except when monster boy wets them.

Lucas quickly sees the error of his ways and soon, like them, he's a stalwart warrior. He comes to care for his mentor Hova (Julia Roberts's voice) and joins a small squad that also includes Zoc (Nicolas Cage), Fugax (Bruce Campbell) and Kreela (Regina King). He joins them in spirited defense, even though he lacks an ant's immense strength and adhesion, fights against wasps animated to look like Cobra gunships and other extremes of nature.

But of course soon enough: Man is in the forest.

Actually, it's a man, an exterminator hired by pre-enlightenment Lucas and voiced by Paul Giamatti at his smarmiest. The climax of the film depicts an epic battle between the ants and their new pal, and this figure of stupid, blundering, Goliath-like evil who means to wipe them out.

Technically, the film is superb. The director is John Davis, an animation impresario last represented on the big screen by "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius," and his use of the medium is dynamic. He understands that the capacity to imagine and depict the amazing isn't enough; it still has to be a movie. He's best at the action sequences (some quite intense for small children) and has a particular genius for dramatizing near misses, as several times Lucas the lovable ant commando almost ends up squished, nibbled, DDT'd or pincered to death. The movie is an epic adventure with a rigorously moral point of view.

It's also stone freaking crazy. (We've shifted to the inappropriate rant, folks.)

Gack, what gagging insanity! What foolishness. It's not merely the psychotic anthropomorphism -- that's only the enabling mechanism of the conceit -- but the far more troubling underlying idea. "The Ant Bully" represents a ruinous force in the world that might be called, for lack of a better term (although, heh-heh, this is a pretty great term), "promiscuous empathy." We identify with anything: birds, bees, flowers, trees. We weep for all. We make a fetish of our compassion and treat our feelings as if they're ideas. This contagion holds that there is no us and them in the world, that we are all one big us. The fact that the world then makes no sense is of no matter to those who hold this point of view; far more important is how happy it makes them feel, how moral, how superior. All they are saying is give peace a chance.

You'd have to be an idiot to miss the Middle Eastern allegory in all this. More foreign policy advice from the savants of Hollywood: We Americans, we're the ant bullies, with our huge technical might, and we blunder into the Third Worlds of this world, huffing and puffing, only to be humiliated by the determination and resilience of the indigenous forces.

Agh! It makes me sick. And the only thing that even makes it marginally arguable is, as I have said, anthropomorphism gone pathological. As movie design, the ants have been prettified and given eloquent voice and movement; their pincers, meant to tear the flesh off other ants in their ceaseless wars, have been stylized into design accessories in the form of well-placed, clearly vestigial decorative shells resembling earrings. The ants aren't ants anymore, but human beings. Their very anthood, their genetic reality, has been obliterated and replaced with idealized archetypes from some touchy-feely new agey pacifist's infinitely superior brain. This, of course, is propaganda in service to a higher truth, as engineered by folks of higher spirituality.

The whole thing is a lie, from start to finish. Other than that, I liked it a lot.

The Ant Bully (90 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG, though it has intense action sequences.


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