A reasonably entertaining, adeptly crafted kidpic that relies on overfamiliar tropes and trappings.
The most questionable thing about “Epic,” Blue Sky Studios’ latest animated adventure, is its title. Not only is it generic-sounding and Google-unfriendly, it’s also one of the last words most viewers would use to describe the film. Which is not to say that director Chris Wedge’s effort is some sort of epic fail, in fact it’s nothing of the sort: “Epic” is a reasonably entertaining, adeptly crafted kidpic whose biggest crime is its near pathological reliance on overfamiliar tropes and trappings. But that shouldn’t bother family crowds, who will likely line up in large numbers and leave satisfied, if hardly awed.
That “Epic’s” title survived market testing is a bit surprising when one considers how much of the rest of the film seems to have originated there. Almost everything that conventional wisdom would suggest a successful multi-quadrant family pic ought to contain is present here in some capacity, from the overstocked celebrity voice cast to 3D bells and whistles, a gently apolitical eco-friendly message, an offscreen parent death and some Timon-and-Pumba style sidekicks. The film also hews to a premise — tiny people living a clandestine existence under the noses of full-sized humans — that has been similarly employed by “The Secret World of Arrietty,” “Arthur and the Invisibles” and “The Borrowers” over the past several years.
But if this is all familiar territory even to film-literate young children, it’s nonetheless executed with professionalism and a few dashes of panache. A prologue introduces the film’s intriguing (if underexplored) allegorical underpinnings, in which the forest’s natural vacillation between growth and decay is represented by groups of opposing woodland sprites. The Leaf Men are a brave race of tiny archers who dress like Link from “The Legend of Zelda” and fly around on saddled hummingbirds, protecting the forest from the spread of rot, embodied by gargoyles with rat-skin coats called Boggans, who maraud through the woods on bats.
After a pitched aerial battle to open the film, a vanquished Boggan plummets screaming from the sky and — in a bravura flourish — splatters harmlessly against the windshield of a taxi carrying teenage MK (Amanda Seyfried). Dealing with the recent death of her mother, MK is being shipped off to live in the woods with her father, Professor Bomba (Jason Sudeikis), a doddering doofus who years ago alienated his family due to his obsessive insistence on a theory that tiny creatures live in the surrounding woods.
Meanwhile, down below, the creatures themselves are planning a mythic transfer of power, with the Persephone-like forest queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles) choosing a flower bulb to which she will pass on her regenerative power, accompanied by the portentously named warrior Ronin (Colin Ferrell) and his callow, rebellious surrogate son, Nod (Josh Hutcherson). Seeking to spoil the party is Boggan shogun Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), who wants the bulb for his own purposes. When MK stumbles into a fateful moment of this conflict, she is shrunk down to ladybug-size and thrust into the drama.
In the film’s best moments, “Epic” recalls Japanese animation more than it does its Western counterparts, with the delicately balanced hyper-clutter of Bomba’s lab bringing Miyazaki inescapably to mind. Yet the deluge of default Hollywood devices leaves the film a bit soggy, and such scant time is devoted to MK’s father issues and romance with Nod that attempts to wring emotional payoff out of these plotlines come up dry. (With five credited screenwriters — the film was confusingly inspired by, but not adapted from, a book by William Joyce, who is also among the scripters — perhaps these imbalances shouldn’t come as a surprise.)
Animation quality is generally quite high, with fur and water excellently rendered, though Wedge has a tendency to stage certain showpiece sequences with the camera pointed directly into a shaft of sunlight, enveloping everything in a fulgent sheen that looks particularly distracting through 3D glasses. Yet on the whole, this is a fully realized world, providing a more ecologically accurate view of the forest than one usually sees on film, full of just as many mold-spores and wriggling things as fauns and flowers.
A slug-snail alliance (Chris O’Dowd and Aziz Ansari) entrusted with looking after the bulb attempt comic relief, with antics that range from harmlessly unfunny to actively unpleasant. (Clever animation can make rats, bugs, lizards and sea sponges huggable — but slugs might still be a bridge too far). On the opposite end, casting Cuban-American rapper Pitbull as a toad underworld kingpin is weirdly inspired, and a Steven Tyler-voiced Parrothead caterpillar should give parents a chuckle.
Danny Elfman’s score is a bit more plodding and saccharine than one might expect from him, and an end-credits song from Beyonce is a wash.
Reviewed at Fox Studios, Los Angeles, May 18, 2013. MPAA rating: PG. Running time: 103 MIN.
(Animated) A 20th Century Fox release of a 20th Century Fox Animation presentation of a Blue Sky Studios production. Produced by Lori Forte, Jerry Davis. Executive producers, William Joyce, James V. Hart.
Directed by Chris Wedge. Screenplay, James V. Hart, William Joyce, Dan Shere, Tom J. Astle, Matt Ember, from a story by Joyce, Hart, Wedge. Camera (Deluxe color), Renato Falcao; editor, Andy Keir; music, Danny Elfman; production designers, Greg Couch, William Joyce; art director, Michael Knapp; sound (Dolby Atmos/Datasat/SDDS), Randy Thom; supervising sound editor, Gwendolyn Yates Whittle; re-recording mixers, Thom, Lora Hirschberg; stereoscopic supervisor, Daniel Abramovich; lighting supervisor, Haji Uesato; casting, Christian Kaplan.
Colin Ferrell, Josh Hutcherson, Amanda Seyfried, Christoph Waltz, Aziz Ansari, Chris O’Dowd, Pitbull, Jason Sudeikis, Steven Tyler, Beyonce Knowles