I was hoping for good things from 'The Ant Bully,' after enjoying a string of great animated movies on high-def recently, including 'Monster House,' 'Ice Age 2,' 'Corpse Bride' and 'The Wild.' Alas, this film brought my lucky streak to a screeching halt, though perhaps that should come as no surprise. 'The Ant Bully' was Warner's biggest box office disappointment this past summer, despite strong early buzz and a high-profile marketing campaign. Still, I held out hope -- how could a film with Tom Hanks on board as one of the producers and top-flight voice talent including Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin be bad?
Based on the children's book by John Nickle, 'The Ant Bully' has a promising concept. Little Lucas Nickle (Zach Tyler) is brand new in town, but he's already had a run-in with local bully Steve (Myles Jeffrey). Momentarily fed up, Lucas takes out his frustration on a hill of ants in his backyard. Oops -- not a smooth move, as Lucas soon find out when Zoc the ant wizard (Nicolas Cage) concocts a revenge potion that shrinks Lucas down to ant size. Now just another worker bug mining dung for the ant collective headed by the Queen (Meryl Streep), Lucas is taught more than one lesson in humility through community service. But when the ants are faced with the biggest bully yet -- local pest controller Stan Beals (Paul Giamatti) -- Lucas will be pressed into service as an ant hero. It's the battle of the bullies, and if Lucas can win this thing, perhaps there is a chance Zoc might let him return to normal size and rejoin the world above a kindler, gentler human.
If 'The Ant Bully' is just a little too didactic, it is not for a lack of trying. I have no problem with a little message in my animated movies, especially one preaching empathy and respect for those smaller than you, but this film's approach is just plain heavy-handed. The plot twists and preachy dialogue felt forced and inorganic -- engineered solely to get us from Moral A to Moral B. Which might not have been so bad if the ants were as cute and funny as the dancing penguins of 'Happy Feet.' But they are not. And especially coming after the far more sublime 'A Bug's Life' and 'Antz,' 'The Ant Bully' doesn't have enough charming characters and unique narrative spins to rise above its message.
Still, there is some fun to be had. The film has a jazzed-up visual look, with blazingly bright colors and an almost retro visual aesthetic reminiscent of 'Jimmy Neutron' (no surprise, as 'Ant Bully' shares the same director, John A. Davis). The design of some the bugs is also inspired; I particularly liked the iridescent glowworms, and the '50s-esque chopper wasps. Then there are the film's few-and-far-between action sequences, which are exciting but may be a bit too intense for the youngest set -- Stan the Pest Controller is particularly sadistic during the film's climactic battle scenes. And you can't argue with a film with such a great lineup of voice talent -- leave to Hanks to call a lot of A-list friends -- the standouts are a sprightly Roberts as the fetching Nova, who kindly befriends Lucas, and cult fave Bruce Campbell as a cocky ant scout. In short, if your kids can get past the preaching, 'The Ant Bully' does offer up at least a modicum of entertainment value.
If 'The Ant Bully' breaks little new ground in terms of animation, at least it is a very colorful, appealing-looking movie. Warner offers the film in 1.85:1 widescreen and 1080p/VC-1 video, and it makes the jump to Blu-ray nicely. A direct digital-to-digital transfer, the "source" is, of course, pristine. Blacks are excellent, as is contrast. The image is always bright, with shadow delineation some of the strongest I've seen on an animated title. Colors are rock solid, and sometimes so vivid that I wanted to reach for a pair of sunglasses. I didn't find chroma noise to be a problem, though it does appear that a slight bit of "fake grain" was added to the image to give it a more cinematic veneer. Detail is generally excellent, with a very nice, three-dimensional look that never fails to impress. Whatever you think of the movie, it is hard to imagine the video quality of 'The Ant Bully' could disappoint.
Note that 'The Ant Bully' is the latest Warner title to hit Blu-ray and HD DVD simultaneously, and as is the case with all of the studio's dual-format titles these days, they are converting the same VC-1 encode to both formats, same video bitrate and all. As such, the quality of image on formats is identical -- if you can spot a difference that is not attributable to hardware or calibration issues, I'll even send you a cookie.
'The Ant Bully' is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and encoded at 640kbps. It's a solid mix, if not as enveloping as I had hoped. And even more disappointing, Blu-ray again gets short thrift, as the HD DVD version includes a full-blown, lossless Dolby TrueHD track. Talk about stepping all over the little guy.
As is, tech specs for the Dolby Digital track are well up to snuff. Frequency response is excellent across the entire spectrum, with the largely constructed sound effects pristine both in execution and cleanliness. Dialogue is excellent and perfectly balanced in the mix. Stereo separation across the front soundstage also boasts nice panning between channels. However, surround use is often dull, with the sound collapsing to a single point in the rears instead of feeling full-bodied and airy. The action scenes are lively, with plenty of ping-ponging effects, but atmosphere is lacking. John Debney's often percussive, even military-esque score is also not very pronounced in the mix, which is disappointing.
'The Ant Bully' hits Blu-ray with the same smorgasbord of extras as the standard-def DVD release. Okay, maybe "smorgasbord" is overstating things a bit, but there are enough fun 'n' tasty tidbits here to keep the kids entertained.
The best bet for the tots is the eight-minute collection of cute Animated Shorts. And since we all know kids thrive on repetition, there is also a one-minute Ant Screensaver, which will cycle endlessly until a more sane adult hits "Stop."
Also fun are the 11 minutes or so of Deleted Scenes. Most are in rough form, with incomplete animation and stand-in voice tracks. But there is some meat to this footage, at least in terms of adding a bit of character interaction missing in the rather short 82-minute feature.
The best extra for anyone over the age of twelve is the 16-minute "It Takes a Colony." This featurette distinguishes itself primarily because it is hosted by an animated beetle. Focused largely on the animation, interviewees include John A. Davis and all of the main effects crew, who live in the Hollywood equivalent of an ant hill, the "special effects shop." There is also a short bit of footage of the voice talent at work, though oddly none of the major stars are included.
Rounding out the fun is the film's theatrical trailer presented in 1.85:1 widescreen.
'The Ant Bully' got lost this year among a slew of other animated family films. I can't say that's a huge tragedy, but the film has enough going for it that it's a suitable alternative if 'Monster House' is out of stock at your local Blockbuster. This Blu-ray release is quite solid -- very nice transfer and soundtrack (though the lack of the HD DVD's Dolby TrueHD track is very disappointing), and cutesy extras. Still, while kids may like 'The Ant Bully' enough to want to watch it again and again, most adults will probably find other animated choices on Blu-ray have more replay value than this.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.