The makers of Warner Bros.' new animated movie ``The Ant Bully" are taking a considerable risk thinking we've forgotten about the Great Hollywood Insect War of 1998. Surely you remember. That year ``Antz" squared off against ``A Bug's Life," and both movies seemed to quench forever the world's thirst for witty pests. That, of course, was eight years ago, just enough time for a new crop of kiddies to sprout to movie-going age and lap up the simple delights in ``The Ant Bully," where all the ants look like designer coffee tables with golf-ball-surfaced eyes. In other words, where can I buy one?
Adapted from John Nickle's illustrated book and directed by John A. Davis, the man behind ``Jimmy Neutron," the story is a variation on those earlier insect movies: critters in jeopardy. Only now there's a playful human wrinkle. Frequently picked on by the neighborhood thug, poor bespectacled 10-year-old Lucas (the voice of Zach Tyler Eisner) takes his frustration out on the ant colony in his suburban lawn, turning the magnifying glass on it and then a garden hose.
Down below, one wizard ant, Zoc (Nicolas Cage), has had it. The magic potion he's concocted actually works, and one night Lucas is vengefully reduced to the puny size of his victims. It's his comedownance. Taken back to the anthill, he's promptly convicted -- by Ricardo Montalban's head ant! -- of crimes against the colony and sentenced by the ethereal queen (Meryl Streep, of course) to live as an ant until he earns his freedom.
Through Lucas, the movie has a high time demonstrating that it's hard out here for an ant. The amount of work required to get the tiniest of crumbs is epic. It takes a village, in fact. But the tiny human boy wants no part of the elaborate obstacle courses required to attain the bright morsels of jelly bean -- excuse me, ``sweet rock."
Lucas refuses to go along with any of it, so obviously, today's lesson is ``teamwork." And here to help him learn it are the forager ant, Kreela (Regina King) and Zoc's girlfriend Hova, whose name suggests the voice of Jay-Z (that's one of his aliases) but who is actually played by Julia Roberts. Much to Zoc's consternation, she and Lucas form a believable bond, and the two are soon off, along with Kreela and the macho scout ant, Fugax (Bruce Campbell), to fetch more candy from Lucas's house. (Jellybelly's anonymous-looking jelly beans are the only products placed in this movie. Compared to the marketing bonanzas of ``Curious George" and ``Over the Hedge," the movie's brand name chastity is farmer's market quaint.)
The movie has a great time playing with ideas of scope and perspective, shifting between microscopic and macroscopic. Those shifts even produce a visual gag featuring an exploding firecracker that, weeks later, still makes me laugh. But the scenes of the ants making their way through Lucas's house is a wondrous showcase for the animators' imaginations. Carpet becomes a shaggy jungle and the air from a fan an ideal way to paraglide across a room.
That's the most inspired sequence in the movie and its loveliness is probably too placid for a lot of kids, but who knows? The movie's two battle sequences are certainly more revved up. One is against a storm of wasps. The other is against the nasty human exterminator (Paul Giamatti), of whose scalp the movie gives us a stomach-turning tour.
Those two battles are so exciting that anyone old enough to remember the Great Hollywood Insect War of 1998 will be momentarily willing to let that memory go.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.