Ten-year-old Lucas has no friends, though he does get lots of attention from a neighborhood bully who enjoys giving him underwear-shredding wedgies. Unable to talk about it with his mom (who still calls him “peanut” right out in public), his self-absorbed, tunes-obsessed sister or his kooky, alien-fearing grandmother, Lucas expresses his frustration by terrorizing a large anthill in his yard. He stomps; he kicks the mound; he yells angrily about how small and stupid the ants are.
Cut to the ant world, where Lucas is feared as Peanut the Destroyer. Zoc, a wizard, is desperately trying to use crystals to perfect a magical potion to deal with “the human problem.” His girlfriend, Hova, would prefer an open dialogue with the humans to reach greater understanding. But when Lucas turns a hose on the hill, flooding the whole complex, Zoc takes action. He enters “the human nest,” climbs a sleeping Lucas, and dumps the now-working potion in the human’s giant ear.
Lucas awakes to find himself ant-sized. He is quickly dragged into the anthill, convicted of crimes against the colony, and brought before the queen for sentencing. Zoc and most of the other ants want him killed, but the queen decides to force Lucas to learn the ways of the colony in hopes of changing the nature of humans.
With the kind nurse ant Hova as his mentor and angry Zoc constantly watching for him to mess up, Lucas finds himself in one life-threatening situation after another. He needs all the protection he can get from Hova and her pals Kreela, a no-nonsense forager, and Fugax, a chest-thumping scout. But just as Lucas begins to develop his ant skills and warm up to his new friends, he remembers an aggressive exterminator is scheduled to come the next day to wipe out all the insects in the lawn. Lucas must find a way to stop the cigar-chomping Stan Beals from bringing the “death clouds” to destroy him and his new friends.
The Ant Bully‘s loudest outright messages are overwhelmingly positive. To hurt those smaller than yourself just because you can is clearly revealed to be wrong, even if you yourself are the object of bullying. When compared to the ant world’s commitment to teamwork and self-sacrifice, Lucas’ human values of individualism and self-reliance appear to be both selfish and ineffective.
Also, Zoc’s initial desire for revenge against Lucas eventually gives way to seeing the wisdom of the queen’s decision to spare him. Thus, Zoc and the other ants go so far as to risk their lives to save him. Lucas eventually comes around as well, and risks his own safety to save the ants. His greatest strengths are revealed when he looks for ways to help the community. Warring insects find common ground and fight for their common good.
The ants serve their “local” queen with reverence, but they worship a deity known as the Great Mother or Queen of Queens, the originator of all ants. Ants are often heard saying “Mother help us” or “Praise the Mother.” On the verge of death, one ant yells, “Tell the queen I loved her.” The ants also fear an evil one called “cloud breather” who brings “clouds of death.” Lucas recognizes a cave painting of the being as a human exterminator.
Zoc is a wizard, using crystals and magic words (some he admits to inventing) to create potions. He calls “upon the elements” in one incantation and curses the children of an unresponsive rock in another. He also uses power from his magic staff to fight against enemies. It’s possible all his magic is really just the combining of natural elements to create scientific reactions. A magic burping potion created from an “alka root” suggests as much.
None of the content is overtly sexual, but Lucas is naked for an extended scene when he is shrunk and dragged to the colony. The same happens later in the film. We get a couple looks at his bare backside, but strategically placed objects, distance and dim lighting obscure the rest of his “details.” Lucas’ teenage sister always wears midriff-baring tops and low-rise jeans. Zoc and Hova flirt, tickling each other with a feather in romantic play. Likewise, Fugax flirts with Kreela (after a meal: “I’m the dessert.”), but is mostly rebuffed (“And I’m on a low fathead diet”).
The bully pushes Lucas and gives him wedgies, and he threatens other kids. But we soon learn that the insect world poses even greater dangers. Ants, anthropomorphized with human feelings, run in terror from big Lucas’ stomping and water attacks. (The filmmakers mostly avoid showing us whether any ants actually die in these assaults.) Small Lucas and the ants are dive-bombed by big, scary wasps with giant stingers. An explosion kills one insect and wounds another. Magnified sunbeams incinerate one bug and scorch Lucas’ arm. Lucas and his friends are chased by a frog; Lucas is eaten and has to be rescued. (Inside the frog’s stomach, other tiny creatures are seen slowly melting away in its digestive juices.)
In the film’s final conflict, multiple insects are harmed (and some appear to be killed) when they join forces to battle for their lives against the exterminator. Stan, in turn, gets bitten in the crotch by a bug inside his pants. He is also stung by a wasp carrying a body-altering potion.
Zoc and other ants exclaim “craznocks” when frustrated, a nonsense interjection Lucas begins to mimic. Zoc exclaims, “For mother’s sake!” Also heard are the words “jeez,” “dang,” “stupid” and “crap.”
The exterminator smokes a stogie and likely inhales unhealthy amounts of insecticide.
Unlike other animated hits, The Ant Bully mostly avoids dabbling in any sophisticated adult humor meant to go over the heads of kids. However, it does indulge in scatological joshing to make the 10-and-under set giggle. Lucas’ wacky grandma loses her false teeth for laughs no fewer than three times (and gets little respect in the process). The bully likes calling Lucas “Pukas.” The exterminator intimidates Lucas into signing a contract by saying he needs his mommy to “wipe his little bottom” (as he acts it out).
The ants “treat” Lucas to a special meal of “honeydew,” which turns out to be caterpillar, um, shall I say, cast off. While discussing the ant’s idea of paradise, Fugax describes what Lucas identifies as “warm poop” falling from the sky. Zoc uses “magic” to create a potion that makes Lucas and another creature belch with great gusto. In listing Lucas’ crimes, the ants shudder at the memory of the “yellow rain.” (“Hey, I had to go!” says Lucas.) Lucas’ grandma describes herself as windy; other jokes are made about passing gas. The fact that the exterminator’s pants ride low over his backside in a couple of scenes is used against him—to full comic effect.
Solomon wrote, “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!” Director John Davis says, “Amen,” though he’s mainly concerned with eyeing the ant farm for lessons of teamwork, community and respect for those who are smaller than us.
The creator of 2001’s Oscar-nominated Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius teamed with Tom Hanks’ production company (The Polar Express) to bring the hit Scholastic book The Ant Bully to life. The result is a film that takes its look a giant leap forward from the simpler, more cartoony style of Jimmy Neutron. It might not hang with the best-looking films in the exploding category of digital animation, but Bully‘s world is bright, colorful, and detailed enough not to distract us from the storytelling. And what a fun, mostly positive, mostly kid-friendly story it is.
Some parents will shake their heads at the anthropomorphization of the ants in the yard, especially when they’re ready to evict them to save the lawn. (Any relatives working for Orkin will have a lot of explaining to do.) More will squirm when Zoc exercises his wizarding muscles and when ant after ant expresses religious adoration for the “Great Mother.”
Lucas eventually adopts the ants’ spiritual posture, but if Christian parents decide to navigate this subject as a family, it would be wise to turn his foolish acceptance into a teachable moment about how we ought to both respect and reach out to those who believe differently than we do—without compromising our own convictions. (Ant missionaries, anyone?) Also, the film’s emphasis on the specific roles of various ants in serving the community to make it stronger could make for a great object lesson about life in the church. (See Romans 12:4-8.)
Of course, most kids Lucas’ age will look past all that and just dig the imagination in the idea of shrinking down to ant size and getting to know the little critters working so furiously in the dirt. They’ll love to think about how it would feel to be so tiny. And they’ll likely identify with Lucas’ willingness to take responsibility for his actions, to step up heroically and help his friends, and to stand with other kids against bullies. In return, you’ll probably have to avoid squashing any bugs right in front of them for a few days.