Another week, another animated movie with a scorchingly starry vocal cast.
This time it’s “The Ant Bully.” With Meryl Streep! Julia Roberts! Nicolas Cage! Produced by ... Tom Hanks! (But the best work comes from Bruce Campbell, whose main claim to fame is the cult favorite “Evil Dead” series.)
Despite the wattage, though, the movie sheds no new light.
Structurally, it’s reminiscent of this summer’s superior “Monster House,” with an awkward boy (Zach Tyler Eisen) experiencing adventures and learning to trust what he’d once feared while his clueless parents are on a weekend vacation.
Thematically, it calls to mind “Over the Hedge,” with its images of suburban sprawl encroaching on nature. (It even features a similarly villainous exterminator, voiced by ... Paul Giamatti!)
And visually, it’s similar to “Antz” from 1998. As in, it looks just like “Antz.”
But the movie certainly means well, and its worthwhile message (teamwork is good, selfishness is bad) should penetrate the brains of kids old enough to stay in their seats and pay attention to it. (Hanks liked the story when his son brought home the book of the same name by John Nickle; he in turn brought it to writer-director John A. Davis, an Oscar nominee for “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.”)
For grown-ups, there’s a none-too-subtle political message. Eisen’s 10-year-old Lucas floods the ant hill in his front yard, causing mass chaos and destruction for the tiny bugs scurrying below. The Head of the Ant Council (Ricardo Montalban!) laments, “To attack without provocation, without reason, because they can — it’s barbaric.”
But “Lucas the Destroyer,” as the ants call him, learns to feel their pain when Wizard Ant Zoc (Cage) crawls up while he’s in bed asleep and pours a drop of potion into his ear that shrinks him to their size.
The sequence in which he falls out of bed and gets dragged back to the ant colony is among the film’s most thrilling, with big ideas and clever, small details. Anything viewed from the ants’ low perspective is inspired, from the towering blades of grass to the menacing frog who views them as snacks.
Once inside, the rest of the ants want to eat Lucas in revenge; but the wise Ant Queen (Streep, doing that same deliberate voice she used to devastating effect in “The Devil Wears Prada”) instead sentences him to work among them in the colony, and understand what it means to be an ant, to earn his freedom.
Zoc’s warmhearted girlfriend, Nurse Ant Hova (Roberts), agrees to take Lucas under her wing — or leg, whatever. (Previously she had teased Zoc with corny puns like, “Sometimes you’re a real stinkbug, you know that?”)
She gets help training Lucas from Forager Ant Kreela (Regina King), who’s tantamount to an insect drill sergeant, and the boastful Scout Ant Fugax (Campbell), who’s fast-talking and full of himself but, deep down, pretty pathetic.
The vocal performances are all boisterous — it’s especially pleasing to see Cage, or rather hear him, in such an unusually upbeat role — and “The Ant Bully” is never less than colorful and high-energy.
But it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve all gone up this hill before.