1½ stars (out of four)

From the 29 pages of John Nickle's picture book "The Ant Bully," writer-director John A. Davis--who should know better, since he helped create "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius"--has puffed up and blanded out a simple story. Lost in the chaos is the story's moral: Being a bully will in time enslave you to your victims, in a good way. We all know that's not usually true, but it's something to tell the kids.

"The Ant Bully," which opens in conventional theaters and IMAX venues today, won't ruin anybody's childhood. Neither is it likely to make anybody's day. Featuring oddly indistinct voice work from Nicolas Cage, Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep, it is simply the latest forgettable PG-rated babysitter disguised as a feature.

It lacks a sharp look and satisfyingly fleshed-out story and compensates with one numbing round of insect- or human-based peril after another. Before long you're ready to side with the villain, a vicious exterminator voiced by Paul Giamatti. In "Over the Hedge," the previous forgettable PG-rated babysitter disguised as a feature, Thomas Haden Church voiced a strikingly similar character. So that's what happened to those guys from "Sideways."

In Nickle's 1999 book, the protagonist, Lucas, wore a beanie and specs and suffered humiliation at the hands of the local bully, Sid. (The movie changes the mean kid's name to Steve, likely because in "Toy Story," the sociopathic preteen jerk next door was named Sid, and why invite comparisons?) Young Lucas then took out his frustrations on the local ant colony. Zapped magically down to ant size, the boy in the beanie learned his lesson and was rewarded with a return to humandom.

Writer-director Davis rejiggers Lucas as a generic New Kid on the block with generic looks and no beanie. Down below grass level, the ant wizard Zoc (Cage) becomes a major player, struggling with perfecting a potion designed to shrink their garden hose-spraying adversary. Above ground, while his parents are vacationing in Mexico, Lucas and his jerk of an older sister remain behind in the care of their UFO-obsessed grandmother (Lily Tomlin), who keeps losing her teeth and looking for decent jokes.

Roberts provides the voice of ant Zoc's nurse friend, Hova. Much like Cameron Diaz's Fiona in the "Shrek" films, Roberts doesn't sound like an on-the-ball voiceover artist so much as the voice of someone famous who wanted to make a kids' film. In the end Lucas finds mentors in both Zoc and Hova, and they join forces to combat first a swarming fleet of wasps, then the pest exterminator (Giamatti) working this particular region of the 'burbs.

The neighborhood looks terrifyingly generic in Davis' film. Instead of the retro stylings of Nickle's original drawings, the film version of "The Ant Bully" settles for a prefab aesthetic of no satiric or straightforward distinction. The ants resemble the ants from "Antz." The kids' faces look like Chucky from "Child's Play." The current "Monster House," far, far better than this thing, offers older kids and adults a universe that doesn't look and feel like every other animated commodity in the marketplace. "The Ant Bully" does. It follows each emotional mood swing according to manufactured plan. It might as well be about lemmings.

mjphillips@tribune.com

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'The Ant Bully'

Written and directed by John A. Davis, based on the book by John Nickle; edited by Jon Price; production design by Barry E. Jackson; art direction by Chris Consani; music by John Debney; produced by Davis, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:28. MPAA rating: PG (for some mild rude humor and action).

Zoc - Nicolas Cage

Hova - Julia Roberts

Queen - Meryl Streep

Lucas - Zach Tyler Eisen

Mommo - Lily Tomlin

Stan Beals - Paul Giamatti