Epic (2013): Written by Tom Astle and Matt Ember, directed by Chris Wedge. Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Colin Ferrell, Beyonce Knowles, Josh Hutcherson, Christoph Waltz, Aziz Ansari, Chris O’Dowd. Rated PG for: mild action, brief language, and some scary elements. Running Time: 102 minutes. Based on William Joyce’s The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs.
Rating: 3/4 Stars
In many ways, Epic reminds me a lot of James Cameron’s Avatar. There is a story, and there are characters. There is a villain, and a conflict. At the end there are morals told and lessons learned. All of that, however, is kept basic, superficial, and simple, because the focus of the film is ultimately not to tell a story- its intent is to create a world of magic and beauty and immerse us in it for an hour and a half. Fortunately, for the most part, it does so quite admirably.
The opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the film- we see a lone, awkward scientist, stumbling around the forest looking for evidence that tiny leaf people exist. Eventually he stumbles across a hummingbird with a miniature saddle strapped to its back. As he gazes up into the trees with a look of joyous wonder on his face, we zoom away to the tiny soldier who had been riding the bird, struggling to fight off an attack of small shark-esque gremlins riding crows. It’s a slick, fun action scene that doesn’t abuse the 3D *too* much, and by the end, we’re excited and ready to see what comes next.
What does come is a taxi, bringing the scientist’s daughter to him after the death of their mother (we learn that the mother and daughter had left him some years previously, seeing his obsession with tiny leaf people as literally insane. Can’t imagine why). She’s lonely and a bit exasperated with her Dad, but clearly wants to give him another chance, and hopes to convince him to give up on his theories about tiny people being real. He’s so wrapped up in his work that he barely hears her though, and within a day she’s already fed up and gets ready to leave.
While this storyline is being set up, we are taken to the gorgeous world of the leaf people, a world occupied by other strange creatures as well- people formed from all manner of plants, and more than a few talking animals (although it’s never explained why the slugs and frogs can talk but the birds, dogs, and deer apparently can’t). We learn that the leaf people are essentially a race of soldiers, committed to protecting the Queen of the Forest, whose power sustains all life in the woods. The captain of the guard fears an attack by the leader of the gremlin people (seriously, I have no idea what they’re supposed to be), especially since the time is approaching for the Queen to select her successor as the Forest’s protector.
These fears prove to be well-founded, as a massive army of gremlins strikes immediately after the Queen selects the flower bud that will transmit her power to the next Queen. The leaf men fight ferociously and drive them off, but not before an errant arrow strikes the Queen down. Right before she dies, however, the daughter from earlier happens to see her fall from the sky and catches the bud right after the Queen breathes her last breath into it, which causes the daughter to shrink to the size of the leaf people (and breathe). Hoping to find a way to return to her normal size, the daughter has to team up with the captain of the guard, a trouble-making leafman novice, and two wise-cracking slugs to safely bring the flower bud back to the Queen’s hold so the next Queen can be chosen, all the while avoiding constant attacks by the gremlin king, who hopes to destroy the forest once and for all.
The director of this movie, Chris Wedge, is the same guy who brought us the brilliance that is Ice Age. Sadly, unlike in that classic, nearly every character in Epic is pretty forgettable, with personalities and arcs that have all been done a thousand times before. The sole exceptions are the Queen, who is interesting enough in her few scenes, and the slugs, who are genuinely funny, and bring a lot of that Ice Age magic to the table with their constant banter. The villain is rather amusingly voiced by Christoph Waltz, but aside from that, there’s really nothing of substance to his scheme. He has the power to kill anything he strikes, but he’s never terrifying or threatening enough to make up for the fact that his lone motivation is, “I want to kill because…..um…...I’m EEEEEEVIIIIIIIIIL!!!!!” Oh, and his son dies at one point. Because, you know, that’s never been done before either.
Despite these very noticeable issues, Epic makes up for them (mostly) with its stunning animation and production design. The world of the leaf people looks fantastic. The entire movie bursts with sunshine and forest green, making this ostensibly normal, average New England forest seem like an exotic world completely detached from the realm of man (which, in a sense, it is). Several scenes- a carriage of leaves carried by a flock of hummingbirds, a formation of leaf soldiers flying into the sunlight, the appearance of a deer in the brush- are done with such loving attention to detail that my brain literally stopped thinking temporarily so it could coo at the pretty colors. Say what I will about the characters, I can’t help but acknowledge a genuine sense of reverence for the forest that permeates the entire movie.
And that, actually, might be one of the biggest advantages Epic gives itself. As easy it would be for them to throw in references to “the sacredness of nature,” or to somehow shoehorn in the standard “Nature Good, Man Bad” message that turns so many people off so many movies, they don’t. They just create the world and let the characters do their thing in it. As a result, you find yourself wanting the good guys to win and the forest to survive NOT because someone makes a speech about it, but because the whole place looks so damn beautiful you don’t want to see it spoiled. Not only is Man NOT the problem this time around (gasp), but a bit of 21st century technology actually plays a key role in saving the day.
The action is well-done as well. Fist fights, sword fights, blasts of magic, and air battles are all well-choreographed and a ton of fun to watch. They also build up each progressive action piece effectively- as the stakes get bigger and bigger, the amount of action and number of people involved gets bigger and bigger as well. In fact, the film almost builds itself up too well by the end. As the armies of the leaf people and the gremlins gather for the final smack-down, I was pretty much expecting them to re-create the Battle of Gondor in the sky, with bats and hummingbirds in place of war elephants (admit it, you ALL want to see that). And we do get the battle, and the final boss fight, but it doesn’t quite measure up to the level of….well….Epic that I’d hoped. Not that it’s a bad ending- it works just fine, all loose ends are tied up, the villain dies, the necessary character arcs are completed- I just found myself wishing for a *little* bit more than what I got. If they really had given me the LOTR Smurf-style, I might have completely absolved the film of its many flaws and given it a 4/4 rating. But, you review the film you have, not the one you wish you had.
So, even though Epic falls a bit shy of living up to its own name, I would still highly recommend it, for both the slugs and the animation, if nothing else. The only other animated film coming out this year (that I’m currently aware of) is the Monsters prequel, and I honestly do not know how high my expectations for that should be, so this will probably be the only interesting animated film to come out for a good while. It’s no masterpiece, it’s not great, but damn if I didn’t have fun.