One would think, after Antz and A Bug's Life (both 1998), that the animated antics of anthropomorphic insects would've been pretty much exhausted by now. Au contraire-bugs are evidently like the ever-popular ducks and rabbits when it comes to enthralling kids. And even if they weren't, The Ant Bully, happily, makes a mountain out of an anthill, with a honey-they-shrunk-the-kid adventure better than those other two films.

Based on the 1999 book of the same name by John Nickle, it's also an improvement over writer-director John A. Davis' best-known work, TV's "The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius"-far less self-consciously precocious, with an casual, calmer narrative that doesn't rely on contrivance or artificial jolts. There's still plenty enough adventure-menacing wasps, voracious bullfrogs, the exterminator from the irresistibly named Beals-A-Bug Pest Control-and sneaky, surprising twists that keep you primed for every next turn in the tale.

Pint-sized Lucas Nickle (voice of Zach Tyler Eisen)-yes, like the author-suffers at the hands of the neighborhood bully and his cronies. And while atomic wedgies aren't drive-by shootings, they scar deeply enough: Lucas, affectionately if embarrassingly nicknamed Peanut by his mother (Cheri Oteri), vents his anger on his parents and on a front-yard anthill, Super-Soaking it regularly enough that the six-legged denizens refer to him as "The Destroyer," expressing a fear and awe that easily recalls the Fantastic Four's world-devouring Galactus.

Determined to keep the colony safe, wizard Zoc (Nicolas Cage) devises a shrinking potion that, once inserted into Lucas' ear, makes the boy Insecta-sized. The apprehending ants aren't the type to raise torches and pitchforks, but close. They take Lucas before the queen ant (Meryl Streep), who vetoes the idea of having the colony eat him, wisely directing that that may save them today, but what of the next Destroyer? Better her colony should make him see the error of his ways and perhaps spread the message that ants are people, too.

Volunteering to mentor him is Zoc's girlfriend, Hova (Julia Roberts-and say what you will about her stardom, she's genuinely terrific here, giving her potentially bland character more complexity and depth than many other performers might have). For help, Hova recruits her foraging-teacher friend, Kreela (Regina King, thanklessly but gamely doing the "sassy" thing that too many white animation directors have black actresses do). Joining them is Kreela's would-be beau, the comically self-important scout ant Fugax (Bruce Campbell, capturing the character's excesses without ever letting him become either unlikable or silly comic relief).

Once Lucas gets over his shock and adjusts to his surroundings-it's not like he has much choice-he develops a patronizing "whatever" attitude. He has to get over that soon enough, since there are other, small-d destroyers around-most notably wasps that attack in what becomes an almost Saving Private Ryan scene of warfare (without all the blood and guts, of course). This great use of our, and Lucas', inverted perspective makes every danger suitably apocalyptic. This includes the climactic aerial battle against the sleazy exterminator (Paul Giamatti) the ants call the Cloud Breather, as the various insects form an allegiance of necessity and prepare to beat wings against their doom in another movie-echo scene, this time of Independence Day's final aerial attack.

Good guys aren't always good guys, the cadaverous Head of Council (Ricardo Montalban) isn't what you'd expect, there are no snarky pop-culture references, and the characters' arcs develop organically, without feeling forced. If you can forgive the jarring time compression of the parents' seemingly one-day Mexican vacation and the lack of concern over Lucas' absence, this is one of those animated features you can enjoy even without a kid by your side.

-Frank Lovece