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May 24, 2013

I can say this much for Epic: at least it’s not another Ice Age installment. I can also honestly say that it’s very pretty and detailed, but with this uninspired, saccharine storytelling that just makes it the Thomas Kinkade of animated film.

And it’s sort of puzzling how we ended up here, because the story originated with William Joyce, of the Academy Award-winning short The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, and his children’s novel The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs. But watch the credits closely: we have “story by” credits for Joyce, James V. Hart, and director — and Blue Sky co-founder — Chris Wedge. Hart has some good scripts to his name, albeit not particularly deep ones, but I wouldn’t call either of Wedge’s other features with Blue Sky — Ice Age and Robots — a triumph of good storytelling. And then it gets worse: the actual screenplay is credited not only to Joyce and Hart, but also to newcomer Daniel Shere and the team of Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember. There are far too many cooks, and the broth has lost any semblance of either balance or character.

At its core, the story has an interesting idea: the woods outside this old house in the western Connecticut countryside are home to two warring groups of tiny people: the Boggans — led by the malevolent Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) — embody the forces of rot and decay, while the Leafmen defend the queen (BeyoncĂ© Knowles), who maintains the health of the forest. The upcoming summer solstice is also a full moon, and this rare event — the movie says a hundred years, but a moment’s thought shows it’s more like thirty — is the only time the queen can select a successor. Mandrake seeks to block this ceremony, which will allow the Boggans to run rampant over the forest.

If this were left in the realm of fantasy, that might work well enough; “Boggan” is pretty clearly derived from “boggart”, the traditional British term for evil nature spirits. But no, we have to give this a pseudoscientific veneer. A bog-standard kookily inept scientist character (Jason Sudeikis) has made the search for and study of the forest’s denizens his life’s work, to the detriment of his career and marriage. His teenage daughter Mary Katherine (Amanda Seyfried) — now going by “M.K.” — returns to the house after her mother’s death, swiftly decides to take off again, and is immediately drawn into the struggle to defend the forest alongside the gruff head Leafman Ronin (Colin Farrell), the disgraced ex-Leafman Nod (Josh Hutcherson), and a couple of comic-relief gastropods (Chris O’Dowd and Aziz Ansari).

I don’t really like to be that guy who harps on the science in movies, but seriously, none of this makes any sense. The morality of the tiny world is pretty neatly split by a standard good-versus-evil dichotomy, but all the forest mammals seem to be on the side of the Boggans, or at least susceptible to their control. The Leafmen seem aligned with the plants, certain insects, and most birds, but crows go with the Boggans. And why are mushrooms on the good side, when they’re clearly part of the rot-and-decay side of the natural order? For that matter, this simplistic pseudo-naturalism completely misses the important point that rot and decay are essential to an ecosystem — part of the balance that Mandrake scoffs at. Again: if this is magic and fantasy pretty much anything goes, but once you start trying to give it the imprimatur of science you invite certain scrutinies.

The rendering is gorgeous, at least; the Leafmen’s territory looks beautiful, and clearly shows its inspiration in the Nutcracker Suite section of Fantasia while also quoting some more recent Disney work. The Boggans’ attacks show off some lovely transitions, turning the lush, green foliage into their own burnt-out turf, flat, drab, and grey.

Which, I imagine, is what must have happened to the characters. M.K. serves mainly as a tie between the two worlds. She has no real arc, and the only attempt at characterization is her recently-deceased mother, which gets about the clumsiest and most unrealistic treatment of such a tragedy in a children’s movie that I’ve ever seen. It’s not even really about her as much as it serves as a point of common ground — and budding romance, of course — between her and Nod. Her father has more character growth, realizing that he’s let his work stifle other more important family concerns. But his crackpot theories are actually proven right, so doesn’t that tacitly justify him?

And why are he and M.K. even necessary in the first place? I expected going in that there might be some sort of environmentalist theme coming, as in Princess Mononoke, but there’s really nothing of the sort. In fact, despite its title but in keeping with its subject, Epic is a very, very small story. The Leafmen refer to humans as “stompers”, but it really applies to the filmmakers: clumsy oafs who manage to crush the exciting and fantastic into the boring and mundane.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass. barely.

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