Most of the fun in wish-fulfillment features—kids' movies and action movies in particular—comes from the villains. It's often more fun to imagine being the bad guy, all swagger and unabashed selfishness, than to empathize with the goody two-shoes hero. But the dichotomy loses some of its punch when the good guy is a bad guy too—or at least when he's so obnoxious as to take the fun out of being bad. That's the main problem with The Ant Bully, the new CGI feature from Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius director John A. Davis: The "hero" is an insufferable little twerp. The film is about his redemption, of course, but he's so thoroughly annoying that it's impossible to root for him; the ants would be thoroughly justified in following their first instincts, and devouring him.
In theory, at least, Lucas (voiced by Avatar: The Last Airbender star Zach Tyler) isn't all that bad a kid. He's just sick of being small and bullied, so he turns his frustration on the ants in his yard, stomping them, hosing down their anthill, and even pissing on them. Little does he know that they have a complex social order and even a caste of wizards, one of whom shrinks Lucas down to ant-size so the ant community can take revenge. Sentenced to work alongside his erstwhile victims until he learns empathy, Lucas sulks, bitches, screams, throws tantrums, attempts escape, goes back to sulking, and generally acts like a ninny for an exhaustingly long time. But surprise surprise, when his own actions bring down the wrath of a sadistic exterminator (Paul Giamatti), he learns the value of friendship and community and blah blah blah.
In spite of its predictability, it's a nifty story in the abstract, and Davis certainly makes the most of the opportunity to examine the world from an ant's-eye view: Lucas and his captors/friends (a pack of simple character types with the voices of Nicolas Cage, Julia Roberts, Bruce Campbell, and Regina King, and the barely upgraded bodies of the cast of Antz) dodge immense wasps, soar through a house via flower-petal hang-gliders, and generally eat up a lot of time exploring their giant environment. The fair-to-good CGI makes the film look like a fun video game (and surprise again, the tie-in game is already out). But it's still wearying to wade through the gross-out body-fluid gags and the seemingly endless process by which Lucas is transformed from a vicious ant-slaughterer to a garden-variety whiny brat to a selflessly pro-ant good guy. Hopefully the video game features all of the action and none of the hammer-blunt plot arc.