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July 28, 2006 |

By Miscellaneous | Film | July 28, 2006 |

In 1996, I was a college freshman and doing my very best not to admit that I might have to actually study a little bit to get by. In other words, I was playing a lot of video games. In particular, Duke Nukem 3D, that venerable classic (new at the time, of course), was occupying a great deal of time while my books collected dust and Coke cans. Through Duke, I was introduced — by way of gankage-cum-homage on the part of the game developer — to the film Army of Darkness.

Granted, I was a latecomer to the Evil Dead franchise; blame it on my small-town upbringing, I guess. Nonetheless, Army of Darkness earned an immediate and irrevocable “K” stamp of awesomeness. Countless quotable lines and the excellence that is Bruce Campbell have guaranteed it a place on my shelf ever since.

OK, by now you’re either annoyed or confused (or, dare I hope, amused), because it’s the third paragraph and no mention has yet been made of the movie ostensibly under scrutiny. Very well then, in deference to you and, well, the fact that I have a job to do, allow me to explain myself. The fact is that I shall shortly draw a direct comparison between The Ant Bully and Army of Darkness. Am I crazy? A little, I reckon. Am I serious? Completely.

The Ant Bully’s protagonist, Lucas Nickle, is a nerdy loner who falls into that ever-so-common trap of internalizing the might-makes-right lesson of one’s own tormentors. “I’m big, and you’re small,” says the neighborhood oppressor, much as Army’s Ash declares, “Good. Bad. I’m the guy with the gun.” Lucas applies this mentality in turn to the only creatures over which he has any power: the ant colony in the front yard.

By way of mysterious formic magic brewed by ant wizard Zoc (Nicolas Cage), Lucas is transported against his will to a world that’s foreign and primitive and terrifying (not unlike England circa 1300). Having earned the enmity of the ants through various acts of cruelty, he’s put on trial for crimes he unknowingly (though deliberately) perpetrated against the colony. Of course, many of the mob are out for blood (“Eat him!” they cry), but the wise queen (a mellifluous Meryl Streep) sets a task for Lucas instead. She admonishes him to learn to live as an ant, to become an ant, before he will be returned home. It’s not quite a quest for the Necronomicon, but it serves as ordeal enough for the young, stubborn child.

In time, the colony comes under attack, not from Deadites, but rather from kill-happy exterminator Stan Beals (Paul Giamatti). Just as the Deadite horde swarms forth because Ash can’t say “Klaatu barada nikto,” Beals has come to kill as a result of a Lucas’ earlier misdeeds. As the battle rages, the ants form an uncomfortable alliance with their historical enemies, the wasps (Bully’s counterpart to Henry the Red’s northmen) and snatch triumph from the jaws of utter destruction.

Ultimately, Lucas — and presumably the audience as well — learns that our differences ought to be celebrated and integrated into a cooperative effort and that, in the end, everyone benefits through the power of teamwork. Of course, there are political analogues here, not to mention social commentary regarding human behavior, but I’ll leave those to other reviewers. I must instead tie up my analogy by noting that by the conclusion of Army of Darkness, Ash too becomes a hero by bringing quarrelling dukes together, uniting the men and learning how to subjugate selfish impulses to achieve the greater good of, you know, uh, defeating the Deadites.

The only real problem I had with The Ant Bully was the glaring Jelly Belly┬« product placement, which was so overt as to be distracting. Technically speaking, the CG was fine, modern stuff, appropriate to the tone of the film. The art and the story were both very well conceived, as a rule, though I could have done without virtually all of the segments involving Lucas’ unhinged grandma, which were more crass than anything else. Kids dig that though, I suppose. Except for the fact that I can’t hear Nicolas Cage without my brain conjuring out-of-place snippets from his checkered past, the voice acting was high quality. I must note, however, a standout scene stealer comes in the scout ant character, Fugax, voiced by none other than Ash himself, Bruce Campbell.

Which brings us just about full circle, I think. If you’ve got children, take ‘em out to this good, wholesome and entertaining flick and let them absorb a positive message. Then maybe go home, put the kids to bed, turn the lights down, and pop in Army of Darkness and revel in all its glory.

Kerry Benton is a film critic for Pajiba. You can see him in action as “k” on The Supernicety.

"All Right! Who's with me?"

The Ant Bully / Kerry Benton

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