Prior to its release, I looked upon Epic with a strange mixture of apathy and loathing. The trailers showed a movie that transparently ripped off Avatar, Fern Gully, The Ant Bully, and others in that vein. For God’s sake, even the title was impossibly generic and void of any creativity or effort. By all appearances, it looked like a hollow and unimaginative shot at cashing in on the recent environmental craze. Yes, it looked beautiful and featured a star-studded cast, but what CGI kids’ film doesn’t these days?
Then the film came out with a mixed-to-positive critical response. I had also heard from some early reports that the film wasn’t quite as bad as expected. With a three-day weekend of time to pass, I finally decided to give it a shot.
Epic opens with Professor Bomba, voiced by Jason Sudeikis. He’s an eccentric scientist who threw away his career and his marriage in pursuit of tiny people who live in the forest. How he came to suspect the existence of fairies in the first place, I couldn’t tell you.
Anyway, his ex-wife recently passed away, which prompts his estranged daughter (Mary Katherine, otherwise known as “MK,” voiced by Amanda Seyfried) to come over and try to patch things up. Unfortunately, MK quickly realizes that she can’t persuade her dad to give up this crazy obsession. Of course, it makes absolutely no difference that Bomba just happens to be right.
In fact, by sheer and total coincidence, the little people of the forest are at a pivotal turning point when all of this is going on. For as long as anyone can remember, you see, the forest has been in a constant state of conflict between two sides. On one side are the Boggans, led by Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), who spread death and decay. On the other side is Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles), whose power allows the forest to grow. There’s also the Leafmen (led by Colin Farrell’s character, Ronin) who protect the queen and fight off the Boggans.
Getting back to the point, MK arrives at her father’s house on the very night of some once-in-a-century astrological alignment. It’s only during this unique event when the queen can pass her powers along to an heir by way of a flower pod. If the queen dies before selecting an heir, or if the pod falls into the wrong hands, then the forest loses its ability for growth and everything dies.
Don’t ask how any of this makes any sense. It’s magic, just roll with it.
So Tara begins the ritual and selects a pod, but the Boggans attack and the queen is killed. With her dying breath, Tara transfers her powers to the pod, which then falls into MK’s hands. The pod’s magic shrinks MK down to Leafman size (again, it’s magic, so just roll with it), which means that she’s now in charge of safeguarding the pod until it can bloom and choose an heir.
Just to get the film’s positive aspects out of the way, there’s no doubt that the visuals kick ass. This amazing fairy world is brought to vivid life by way of sterling animation and top-notch character designs. Kudos are also due for the action scenes, which are presented with delightful energy and some brilliant choreography. I was particularly fond of a fight scene with a mouse that puts a neat little spin on the concept of seeing animals from a shorter perspective.
The film also excels in terms of sound. Danny Elfman turns in a phenomenal score, and the sound design of the forest’s inhabitants is uniformly remarkable. I was also very fond of the voice cast, all of whom turn in very good performances with what they were given. I realize there are many who would question the involvement of Pitbull, but he only gets a couple of scenes and leaves before doing a lot of damage. There’s also Beyonce, who imbues her character with a very impressive amount of regal charm and joie de vivre. Rounding out the “What on earth are you doing here?” crew is Steven Tyler, completely unrecognizable as the voice of the film’s resident exposition machine/wise old man (or “crazy uncle,” as another character calls him).
As for the rest of the film’s voice cast, they only suffer because their characters are so awfully weak. Aziz Ansari and Chris O’Dowd are two excellent cases in point, as their copious talent is utterly wasted on a couple of comic relief characters. Ansari plays a slug with a crush on M.K., O’Dowd voices a snail who wants to be a Leafman, and they’re both completely annoying. Granted, they never veer into pop culture references or juvenile humor, both of which are very common pitfalls for such characters in kids’ films. Even so, I seriously wanted to take a salt shaker to the both of them every time they opened their mouths.
(Full disclosure: My first instinct with slugs and snails in any situation is to reach for the salt. My mom was a gardener when I was growing up, so I was raised to think of them as evil abominations that must be killed on sight.)
Speaking of evil abominations, let’s talk about our villain. Put simply, Mandrake is boring. There’s absolutely nothing remarkable about this character, and his only motivation is to spread death and disease just because. Granted, there’s something about taking vengeance on the Leafmen for the death of Mandrake’s son (Dagda, voiced by Blake Anderson), but Mandrake was already evil before that happened and he didn’t seem too fond of his son in the first place, so whatever. Luckily, Christoph Waltz is of course well-versed in playing villains, and his voice is uniquely suited to give Mandrake some illusion of a personality. I should also point out that his godawful line in the trailer (“I’m going to destroy the forest, but I’m only going to do it once, so pay attention.”) never made the final cut. Thank goodness for small favors.
Then there’s the matter of Nod, voiced by Josh Hutcherson. He’s a novice Leafman with incredible flying skills and a tremendous disdain for authority. His father was a Leafman who got KIA, so of course he’s got some daddy issues to sort out as well. Basically, the character is a two-bit ripoff of Maverick from Top Gun, but without a single iota of Tom Cruise’s charisma. Hutcherson is better than this and he deserves better.
The same could be said of Amanda Seyfried, whose voice performance in this film is worthy of a far better lead. Looking back through the entire narrative, it quickly becomes obvious that MK’s only purpose in the grand scheme of things is to get her daddy involved. Any time she’s useful, it’s only because her father has so many resources and so much knowledge about what’s going on. MK is completely incapable of doing anything on her own, and I can think of no greater failure for a character who’s supposed to be our protagonist.
It should come as no surprise that the film tries to promote MK and Nod as love interests. It’s a romance arc that falls completely flat. Even if the subplot wasn’t rushed and terribly weak, any attempt at a relationship between two such flimsy characters would inevitably be DOA.
Without a doubt, the strongest character in this film is Ronin. He’s strong, he’s smart, he’s practical, and his sorta-romance with Tara gives the character some pathos. He’s the only character with any degree of depth, and the only good guy who has any idea what he’s doing. It also helps that he’s voiced by Colin Farrell, who brings a nice bit of strength to the character’s depiction.
In case it isn’t already obvious, the movie’s narrative is woefully thin. The characters are terribly developed, and the world of the forest seems built more on plot convenience than any kind of logic. In fact, one complaint sort of feeds into the other: According to the film’s premise, death and disease aren’t natural parts of life that we all eventually have to deal with, but are instead caused for absolutely no reason by dickish evil spirits with no greater plan in mind. Moreover, I may not be an expert in botany, but I’m pretty sure that the queen’s magic was put together with absolutely zero regard for how the world actually works.
On the other hand, because the characters are roughly as tall as insects, they’re able to leap great distances and survive falls from extreme heights. I’ll grant that this is actually plausible, but I get the feeling that any semblance of scientific accuracy is purely incidental. Either that or the filmmakers only care about facts when it benefits their action sequences.
This brings me to the film’s environmental angle. Specifically, there isn’t any. Yes, it seems that the health of this forest is determined solely by the Leafmen and the Boggans. Global warming, pollution, logging, etc. play absolutely no part in this conflict. Not only is that a huge wasted opportunity, but it also makes the film’s premise that much flimsier.
Instead, the movie doesn’t seem to have much of any idea what it’s trying to express. Bomba expresses the belief that “Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there,” though that notion begins and ends with him. There’s a kind of conflict between MK and Bomba in the first act, as Bomba pores over tiny details in search of the fantastic while MK tries to bring him into the larger, more practical world. Alas, the film could have done more to explore this angle, or it might have expanded on the theme without marginalizing our protagonist in the process.
No, the film is primarily interested in the theme of interconnectivity. The Leafmen, you see, have this philosophy that we’re all in this together and we have an obligation to help each other through life. This notion is expressed through the phrase “Many leaves, one tree,” and the catchphrase is abused to the point where it means whatever the characters want it to mean in any given context. So that theme is also underdeveloped.
On a final note, I’d like to point out that this screenplay had five — count ‘em, five — credited writers. Including the story credit for director Chris Wedge, that makes six. In retrospect, this makes a degree of sense. I can totally believe that this was a screenplay written by committee, and a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.
Though Epic has some dazzling visuals, wonderful music, and strong voice performances, it’s only so much lipstick on a pig. The story is built on a very weak foundation, huge amounts of thematic potential were either underdeveloped or ignored entirely, and most of the characters are just thick enough to give you a papercut.
I realize that The Croods is mostly out of theaters by this point and Monsters University is still a month away. Even so, if you’re in need of something to bring the kids to, I can’t bring myself to recommend this one. I can’t even bring myself to suggest that you wait for a home rental: There’s absolutely no reason to watch a DVD of this movie when you could be watching something by Pixar or Hayao Miyazaki instead.