Not such an epicurean delight.
It’s a pretty daring move, naming your film Epic. With that title, you’re setting up serious audience expectations. Just what does it mean, though, for a story to truly be an epic? Opinions vary, of course, but to me it means a vast scale, both in terms of visuals and in emotion, and the sense that you’ve gone on a great journey by the time it is over. An epic has a transformative effect not just on the characters, but on the audience as well. Released during the blockbuster-overstuffed summer of 2013, Epic, from the makers of Ice Age, promises that same vast scope, in a magical forest setting.
Mary Katherine, or “M.K.” for short (Amanda Seyfried, Mamma Mia!), is visiting her father, an eccentric scientist who seems more interested in studying the forest around their home than in connecting with his daughter. Elsewhere, hidden in the forest, there exists a kingdom of tiny, human-like creatures. The queen (Beyonce Knowles, Dreamgirls) is in the process of choosing a new heir, who will be birthed from a chosen pod. The queen is protected by her warriors, the Leafmen, including the strong, stoic Ronin (Colin Ferrell, Alexander) and the brash, youthful Nod (Josh Hutcherson, The Hunger Games). The queen is attacked by the sinister Mandrake (Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained), who wants a blight to rot the entire forest. Events converge, and M.K. is shrunk down to the queen’s size, and she is placed in charge of the pod. Now, M.K., Ronin, Nod, and some friends they meet along the way must traverse the forest floor to bring the heir to life and save the land from the rot.
A common misconception about animation is that it is easy, because animators can go ahead and draw anything they want (or, in CGI’s case, render it) and just put it on screen. When it comes to maintaining a sense of scale, and consistency in size of the characters and setting, suddenly animation gets a lot trickier. Take Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs. Not only did animators have to work tirelessly to maintain consistency in the height difference between Snow and the dwarfs, but they also had to design the dwarves’ home to their scale, and then make it evident that Snow was something of a giant in their home. You don’t really notice this because Walt and his team made it so consistent and so believable that don’t question it. That brings us to Epic, in which issues of characters’ sizes contrasted to the sizes of the world around them get even more complicated.
There have been a ton of humans-shrunk-down-to-tiny-size movies, and there’s certain to be more in the future. What makes Epic different from the rest is that the animators have worked real-world science into their magical shrinkage. Based on the premise that M.K. and the Leafmen are two inches tall, the animators have calculated their weight, density, reaction times, and even heart rate, so they don’t move quite like human, but rather with great speed and the ability to jump incredibly high. Also, physicists theorize that being that small would give you a different perception of time, so that events would appear to move much faster than they would for an ordinary human, and this is worked into several key moments in the film. All this thought and attention to detail are what really make Epic memorable.
What’s less memorable, then, is the by-the-numbers hero’s journey plot. Our heroes have the magic pod that has be taken to a magic place at a certain magic time so that magic can happen, etc. Along the way, there are chases, fights, escapes, wonders, wisecracks, lessons learned, and so on. It’s all stock fantasy adventure stuff, bringing nothing new to the party in terms of story. The emotional arc belongs to M.K. She spends most of the film with a singular goal—to go home—only to later question just what “home” means to her, exactly. Nod acts her intro into this world, a friendly face who can perhaps become more than just a friend. On the more serious side is Ronin, who cares deeply for the queen, and his personal connection with her drives him forward. Being high fantasy, of course there has to be comic relief, so we get two wisecracking slugs (played by Aziz Ansari, Parks and Recreation, and Chris O’Dowd, Bridesmaids). Their jokes get a little anachronistic at times, such as giving each other high fives, but they’re not so distracting that they take over the whole movie. The really big disappointment is the villain, Mandrake, whose only motivation seems to be, “I’m going to do evil things just because I’m so freakin’ evil! Check out how evil I am!”
With the attention to detail I mentioned above, it should be no wonder that the movie looks gorgeous. Hope you like the color green, because it’s everywhere: green leaves, green moss, green grass, and lots of green characters. The second act takes our heroes to a hollowed-out tree hosted by an exposition-delivering caterpillar (voiced by, of all people, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith). This guy’s multiple arms add a lot of character for another small detail. We meet a lot of animals along the way, such as hummingbirds, bees, mice, bats, and more, and these all act and behave like we’d expect, looking natural and realistic. The human/Leafman movements can occasionally be stiff, but facial expressions are nicely emotive.
All those details and vivid colors are captured well on Epic (Blu-ray), with bright greens that jump off the screen, and eye-popping textures on the animals and the Leafmen’s armor. Sound is good, too, making great use of the score by Danny Elfman (Edward Scissorhands). The best of the extras is the featurette, “Mysteries of Moonhaven Revealed,” in which the animators go over the complicated process of bringing the movie to life. Other featurettes are more kid-friendly, looking at animals featured in the movie, insect camouflage, and even how mold and rot has its place in an ecosystem. The set comes with a DVD copy of the movie and a digital copy for your mobile device du jour. The digital copy also comes with an Epic coloring book app, although I find it hard to believe an app could be better than an actual coloring book.
This is interesting: Despite all this talk in the movie about the importance of the forest, there actually isn’t a preachy, environmental message. Not once does the action stop so the characters can speechify about not polluting or somesuch. Saving the environment is good, of course, but bringing the movie to halt to make that point is not so good. Fortunately, the creators of Epic have taken the higher ground and stuck to the story at hand.
I’m torn. On the one hand, the script is nothing that fantasy film fans haven’t already seen. On the other hand, the movie’s technical achievements deserve to be celebrated. Best to put Epic in your queue before you commit to buy.
Not quite epic.