In a gorgeously designed computer-animated action-fantasy film where striking visuals are the main selling point, one of the most memorable images isn’t one of fantastic creatures, pitched battles or dizzy flight sequences.
It’s a teenaged girl futilely trying to get the attention of her distracted father, who looms above her like a colossus, to whose eyes she is practically invisible. Later in the scene, he finally sees her, as if for the first time: a creature as strange to his eyes as a specimen in a jar — which, as it happens, is what she is.
It’s a remarkable image of domestic dysfunction, of broken family relationships. Epic is full of potent images; a better written film would have made the emotional connections clearer.
In a Pixar movie, there would be an acute moment of clarity for the father, Professor Bomba (Jason Sudeikis), whose obsessive quest for the tiny, hidden civilizations he believes are at work in the forest cost him his marriage and relationship with his daughter, Mary Katherine, or M.K. (Amanda Seyfried).
The closest we get is a scene in which Bomba despairingly thinks for a moment that he has wasted his life on a delusion — only to realize a moment later that he was right all along. It’s true that his attention is finally focused on his daughter, but the movie never confronts him with the fact that it doesn’t matter that he was right — he has wasted his life.
“I thought if I could prove it, she’d come back,” Dad explains to M.K. The obvious reply, which M.K. doesn’t give, is that he should have chosen his wife and daughter over his obsession in the first place.
Such self-awareness eludes Epic, the third feature from Blue Sky Studios' co-founder Chris Wedge, director of Robots and Ice Age. Visually, Epic towers over these films like Professor Bomba looming over M.K., magically shrunk to insect-like proportions.
It’s Blue Sky’s most ambitious, technically impressive film yet — but except for some snappy gag writing, the script remains squarely, solidly adequate. After eight feature films, the studio has yet to show a flair for character development, plotting and theme to match their increasingly stunning visuals.
Which is not to deny Epic its modest pleasures. The source material, the oddball children’s book The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs by William Joyce (who collaborated on the adaptation), has been reimagined as a sweeping good-vs.-evil saga, borrowing liberally from The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars by way of FernGully: Jedi-like “Leafmen” in elvish armor, mounted on iridescent hummingbirds, as well as orc-like “Boggans” riding crows and bats like Warg-riders, etc.
Along with Rise of the Guardians (also based on a Joyce story) and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, Epic is at least the third computer-animated family film in recent years with a mythopoeic tale of noble but hidden defenders whose existence is a matter of belief or doubt, not knowledge. Of the three, Epic feels most like a satisfying mythos, with its anthropomorphized take on the vegetative processes of growth and decay.
At its best, Epic produces images of poetic power, even grandeur. Among the best of these is Queen Tara walking across the surface of a pond strewn with tiny floating leaves that magically draw together under her feet, forming a temporary floating carpet, then drift apart after her passing. Ranks of Leafmen archers advance on the Boggans with an agility exceeding even Peter Jackson’s elves. When a young Leafman recruit named Nod (Josh Hutcherson) takes tiny M.K. for a ride on a deer’s antlers, there’s an all-too-brief shot of the deer’s hoofs, seemingly miles below, that I could have watched for two or three times as long.
The catch is that the world the filmmakers create is far more interesting than the story they tell in it or the characters they put in it. Even the dialogue undermines the images. A loyal Leafman named Ronin (Colin Farrell) kneels humbly before Queen Tara (Beyoncé): the picture of service and devotion. But the writers can’t make Tara appropriately regal, and they settle for gently humorous and mocking instead.
Generic archetypes abound: Nod, the gifted but free-spirited hero, reluctant to commit to the duties of a Leafman; Ronin, the stoic warrior and Nod’s stern mentor. (The loyal, samurai-like warrior is oddly named; ronin is Japanese for a rogue or masterless samurai, a drifter with no place in life — the opposite of this character.)
M.K.’s mother has recently died, and M.K. has come to live with her father, who is almost too eccentric to function. (The oddball father whose obsession with documenting elf-like forest creatures separates him and his daughter is taken from the superior The Spiderwick Chronicles. The dead mother is taken from everything. Bomba’s house in the middle of the forest is supposed to be falling apart, but the Gothic Revival woodwork looks gorgeous.)
How M.K. is unexpectedly swept from the human world into a crucial battle between the Leafmen and the Boggans, I won’t relate. There’s some business about the life of the forest and a magical seed pod that must sprout on the summer solstice under a full moon, a convergence I think they say happens once a century. (Actually, it happens once every 30 years or so.)
In the real world, growth and decay are both part of the circle of life. (Among the happy forest community of life, we see anthropomorphized mushrooms — agents of decay.) Perhaps Queen Tara’s people and the Boggans are meant to live in a harmonious balance. But the Boggan leader, Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), is tired of “balance.” He wants to do more than feed on the life of the forest; he wants to corrupt it somehow, to infect life with death by subverting the seed-pod ritual.
The ensuing struggle teams M.K., Nod and Ronin with a pair of comic-relief gastropods, a snail named Grub and a slug named Mub (Chris O'Dowd and Aziz Ansari), both of whom aspire to wildly unrealistic goals. Grub wants to be a Leafman, and Mub wants to … vie with Nod for M.K.’s affections. If the idea of a slug being attracted to a miniature human girl crosses a line for you, this is not your movie. It almost crosses a line for me, but Grub’s ridiculous trash-talking with Nod hit my funnybone right.
By far the best comic-relief character is the Bomba family dog, Ozzie. M.K. is surprised to find Ozzie still alive when she returns home, and, in fact, he’s down to three legs and one eye, but that doesn’t seem to slow him down. He’s at the center of the movie’s best sequence, a set piece in which M.K. leads Nod and Ronin into her father’s study. If only the whole film were as inventive as this.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Content Advisory: Mild action and menace; some mildly rude words. Fine family viewing.