It’s possible you haven’t noticed, but Hollywood is in a bit of a superhero glut right now. This isn’t a bad thing – especially if the mediocre fare is balanced out with fantastic titles like Captain America: The Winter Soldier – but they all seem to be aimed at the same target demographic. Where are the comic book adaptations for Presbyterians? Or bodybuilders? Or even for kids?
Antboy is a new film from Denmark that tries to address that last gap with a story and style aimed squarely at the pre-teen crowd.
Pelle (Oscar Dietz) is a shy kid, small for his age, and crushing hard on the most popular girl in class. Trouble continues when he tries to help a kid being bullied and instead ends up chased into an abandoned yard, but it’s there where he’s bitten by a genetically modified ant. Soon he’s discovering new abilities like super strength, wall climbing and highly acidic pee, and with the help of his comic-loving friend Wilhelm (Samuel Ting Graf) he sets out to fight crime under the moniker Antboy. It all goes fairly easy too until a villain calling himself The Flea (Nicolas Bro) shows up on the scene, kidnaps his crush Amanda and holds the town in terror.
Director Ask Hasselbalch’s debut feature, based on Kenneth Bogh Andersen’s books, is a paper-thin riff on Spider-Man from the geeky underdog hero to the insect origin to the awkward montage of Pelle discovering his powers, but it never tries to hide that influence. Wilhelm shares his comic book knowledge with the slightest provocation leading him to acknowledge the gamut of popular superheroes up to and including Ant-Man.
But while the narrative is extremely familiar the story is scaled down to a kid’s level in wonderful fashion. We still get all the iconic moments and characters from the scientist villain who tried to play god and has instead been driven mad to the damsel in distress (Cecilie Alstrup Tarp) who comes to love her hero, but they’re presented in a simpler fashion devoid of much in the way of complex moral dilemmas.
The downside to that simplicity though is that events rarely feel truly dramatic. Resolutions are reached fairly easy, and there’s no real logic when it comes to the adults in this world. The Flea is actually the only grown-up who gets more than a couple token lines, but that makes sense as this truly is the kids’ story.
It’s a fun one too. We adults may know where it’s going at all times, but Hasselbalch keeps things lively with a visual affinity for the comics. The opening credits use hand drawn panels to give a bit of a pre-story, a flashback section is told via similar panels and we even get the occasional word balloons.
The heart and soul of the film is Dietz who gives a charismatic and gung-ho performance as the downtrodden little guy that keeps the film’s energy and likability high throughout. Unfortunately the other child actors can’t quite compete. Some of them are seemingly devoid of emotion and expression and deliver all of their lines identically aside from the volume. It’s worth noting that the version of Antboy hitting theaters this week in limited release is dubbed into English, so most of the blame goes to the voice actors. That said, I’ve seen the Danish language version as well and the actual actors in question aren’t that much better in their own tongue.
At a slim 82 minutes Antboy is a fast and easy watch and suitable for anyone in the family. It can’t compete with the big boys out of Hollywood, but it never really tries to. Instead it’s happy and more than capable in its small scale simplicity, and the end result is a fantastic starter film for the budding young comic fans in your care.
The Upside: Enjoyable for all ages but mostly for the 8–12 year old range; Dietz is cute and all-in for the character and story; fun sense of humor; comic book stylings; no fart gags
The Downside: Slight; some of the kid actors are a bit flat expression-wise
On the Side: Antboy 2 is currently in production.
Antboy opens in limited theatrical release starting April 16, 2014.