For 3D digital animation, most people think there’s Pixar and there’s everybody else. However, there are lots of other animation studios out there doing terrific work in the field and pushing the boundaries for how real a cartoon can look. The latest such film is director Chris Wedge’s Epic, produced by Blue Sky Studios, the folks behind Ice Age. The film is incredible to look at and gives Pixar a run for their money in visuals, though in the other departments, Pixar still may have the decisive edge.
Based on William Joyce’s book The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs, the fairly blandly-named Epic tells the story of Mary Katherine (Amanda Seyfried), or “MK” as she likes to be known, a 17 year old whose mother has just passed away and who now must live with her estranged and exceedingly eccentric scientist father, voiced by Jason Sudeikis. MK’s parents broke up when she was very young because her father was convinced that the woods surrounding his house were home to a tiny race of intelligent beings with a society all their own and has been obsessed with proving it ever since. He has cameras placed throughout the forest and goes out daily with huge pieces of equipment strapped to his body in an effort to prove he’s not crazy, which, naturally, everyone assumes he is.
The thing is, oddly enough, he isn’t crazy, and there is a complex intelligent society in the forest, and little does he know that there’s a massive war going on. The good beings, led by Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles), want to keep the natural world green and pleasant and great; howeverm the evil things, which are called “boggins” and are led by the bat-skin-wearing Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), want to make everything rot and turn to gross. As luck would have it, today is the day that the Queen must choose a new special pod from which her successor will spring, ensuring the power over the forest is held by the good guys. Tara is under the protection of Ronin (Colin Farrell), the captain of the guard of hummingbird riders armed with bows and pine needle arrows, but she’s attacked and mortally wounded by the boggins anyway (spoilers), but luckily, she is able to bestow the protectorship of the pod to MK, whom she also shrinks down to their size. Also, there’s a character called Nod (Josh Hutcherson), a rebellious and hunky guardsman there so that MK can have a love interest. They have to get the pod to bloom in the moonlight on this very night, because if it blooms in the shadow, Mandrake will win.
First thing I’ll say is that the film is utterly gorgeous to look at. The animation is rich and textured and really feels like you’re visiting a fully-realized and developed world. It truly knocked me out. There is a shot early in the film in which a taxi drops MK off at her dad’s house. Pretty standard shot, except that the taxi looked like it was live action. In fact, a lot of the scenery looked like it could have been in a real forest. I saw the film in 3D as well, which can be hit and miss, but this was one of the best uses of stereoscopy I’ve ever seen. I really think animated films are the only ones that can justify the use of three-dimensionality, because they can make the world in any way they choose. Sorry, James Cameron and Peter Jackson, but animated films are doing it the best.
Some of the action sequences are incredibly well-directed and exactly as exciting as they need to be. It evokes memories of the Endor speeder chases in Return of the Jedi, as crow-mounted boggins chase the hummingbird-mounted leaf men and Lord of the Rings as they fire arrows and swing clubs at each other. The climax is stunning, as thousands of bats attempt to blot out the moon and thwart the heroes. There is also a very cool sequence in which MK, Ronin, and Nod go back to her house to gather supplies and her giant father sees her and attempts to suck them all up into a vacuum machine he’s made. It’s like Honey I Shrunk the Kids if the kids could jump really high and swing around while a one-eyed, three-legged pug chased them about the place. Terrific stuff.
Where the movie really falls down is in the script. Not in the story, mind, but the script. William Joyce, who is also given a screenplay credit here, also wrote the books upon which Disney’s Meet the Robinsons and last year’s Rise of the Guardians were based. Epic has a very well-defined narrative and some memorable, if slightly generic characters. It’s a bit like FernGully, but instead of it being a blatant condemnation of destroying the rain forests, it’s got an actual plot and narrative that’s interesting. No, the problem here is that the screenplay is not funny at all. Now, this wouldn’t be a problem if it just focused on the dramatic plot, but it tries to shoehorn in many gags and one-liners that just don’t go anywhere. The situational humor (such as the giant father sounding to MK’s ears like a man speaking in slow-motion) works, but the attempts at humorous dialogue do not. I was sat in a theater full of little kids and the only people I could hear laughing were the irritating 40-something couple behind me, who I swear were drunk or high at 11 am.
A lot of the problem also stems from the casting. While Seyfried, Hutcherson, Farrell, and Sudeikis all do a good job, the rest of the cast have distractingly famous voices to the point where I completely stopped thinking of their characters as characters. The characters of the snail, Grub, and the slug, Mub, who are the only ones who can take care of the pod before it blooms, are played by Chris O’Dowd and Aziz Ansari, respectively. I love those two actors generally, but it seemed like they were just told to say things and those lines would be animated into the jokes instead of actually having them written. Neither character elicits more than the occasional smirk.
Waltz, Knowles, Steven Tyler as the prophet Nim Galuu, and, heaven help us, rapper Pitbull as a toad crime boss named Bufo are the worst offenders. It’s like their direction was “be as much what people expect you to be as possible” and were given almost nothing to work with from the standpoint of words to say. It really does feel like they felt the characters couldn’t stand up on their own so they needed to get people who have a lot of personality to make up for it. This is the problem I have in general with animated films that get big stars for voices. There’s a whole industry of people who are actually good at creating a character for cartoons, and they get relegated to bit parts and ensemble characters in big movies. Regardless, soap box.
Ultimately, if you’re looking for a funny movie with a good script, Epic might not be for you, but if you want to sit and watch a very solidly constructed animated adventure with lots of good action, and you can turn your brain off a bit, then you’ll have a really excellent time. You’ll likely say “Ooh, pretty” more often than you say, “Ooh, not funny.”