Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants: Film Review

A little goes a long way in this impressive French animation feature.

Writers-directors Thomas Szabo and Helen Giraud adapt their animated TV series to the big screen in this €20 million ($27 million) 3D insect epic.

An artfully made animation film that strays from contemporary conventions while still leaving the viewer both dazzled and amused, Minuscule: Valley of Lost Ants (Minuscule: La Vallee des fourmis perdus) offers yet another prime example of how, when it comes to cartoons, the French do it differently -- and sometimes a bit better.

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Set in a micro-world of insects reminiscent of A Bug’s Life, Antz and the recent Turbo, but holding back all the snappy repartee and pop culture meta-commentary (save for a few classic film references), this completely dialogue-less feature from writers-directors Thomas Szabo and Helen Giraud combines real landscapes with meticulously animated creepy-crawlies who sustain interest without ever opening their mouths. Released to strong critical and public favor in Gaul, Minuscule should loom large at the local box office, while it’s universal appeal could drum up sales among distributors catering to a young and patient audience.

An opening montage of breathtaking forest landscapes (exteriors were shot at the Mercantour and Ecrins National Parks in southern France) sets the pace for a movie that’s less about story and character than about plunging the viewer into a full-on natural environment, and one that grows increasingly hostile as the plot thickens.

After a live-action couple leaves their picnic in a hurry, a gang of animated black ants moves in to steal what could be their most coveted treasure: a tin box filled with sugar cubes. But before they can get away with the loot, a newly-born ladybug strays from its own family and gets trapped inside the box, and is soon spirited away by the ants as they try to transport their prize across the woods toward their colony.

Mixing extreme close-up photography reminiscent of Microcosmos (also a French production) with 3D-composed creatures who are both lifelike and cartoonish -- they have googly eyes and make funny noises -- Szabo & Giraud invent a world that’s not entirely fake nor completely real, while at the same time relying on popular movie tropes to fuel a simple but engaging narrative. An early, impressively mounted down-river chase is particularly thrilling in this regard, perhaps less in terms of suspense than in leaving viewers wondering how the filmmakers managed to pull it off in the first place.

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Soon, the ants and ladybug make fast friends, but their quest for sugary bliss is thwarted by a band of evil red ants that follow them to the colony, eventually launching a massive siege worthy of The Fall of the Roman Empire. While the storytelling tools on display here are not necessarily original, the directors find some extremely clever ways to portray the battle and chase scenes, making reference to Close Encounters, Star Wars and, in one uncanny confrontation with a spider, to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho -- a scene from which they recreate almost shot-for-shot.

But what’s most enjoyable in Minuscule is its reliance on the beauty of Mother Earth, rather than on lots of snarky dialogue, to depict a natural order that constantly falls in and out of harmony, and one in which a heroic ladybug can hopefully find its place. Not unlike the Oscar-nominated films Ernest & Celestine and A Cat in Paris, it’s a movie that trusts in the audience’s ability to enjoy an animated story without having to sit through two hours of nonstop banter and visual f/x overload. (Although the French can excel at that too, as seen in last year’s smash Despicable Me 2, which was directed by the Gallic duo of Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud.)

Alongside all the striking animation, Minuscule also benefits from an upbeat, John Williams-style soundtrack by Herve Lavandier (Pour un fils) and, most admirably, from an array of ingenious sound effects (by Come Jalibert, Florian Fabre and Yohann Angelvy) that recall the voiceless charms of the great Jacques Tati.

Opens: Wednesday, Jan 29. (in France)
Production companies: Futurikon Films, Nozon Paris, Nozon SPRL, Entre Chien et Loup, 2D3D Animations
Directors, screenwriters: Thomas Szabo, Helene Giraud
Producer: Philippe Delarue
Art director: Helene Giraud
Production designer: Frank Benezech
Music: Herve Lavandier
Sales agent: Futurikon
No rating, 89 minutes