Since the rise of Pixar and DreamWorks Animation, moviegoers have come to embrace animation as a medium that can spawn some of the year's most exhilarating cinematic moments, and Best Picture nominations for movies like Up and Toy Story 3 only serve to help us expect more from a genre that was once "just for kids." We expect to be not only entertained, but also awed. And its this expectation that makes movies like Epic so profoundly disappointing.
From Blue Sky Studios, the company that brought you Ice Age, Rio and Horton Hears A Who comes a fantasy adventure based on William Joyce's children's book The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs. The first order of business for this adaptation seems to have been stripping away its unwieldy book title for one that is shorter, yet far worse. The word "epic" tells you virtually nothing about the movie's premise. Worse yet, it sets up an expectation of—well, of something epic unfolding. A promise Epic won't deliver on.
The story follows a petulant teen named Mary Katherine—M.K. for short—who wanders into the woods and is accidentally sucked into a world of magic and wonder. Sounds like Alice in Wonderland, right? Sadly, Epic doesn't embrace the fantastical design this concept allows for, favoring for the most part generic character designs that could be confused with a half dozen lesser fantasy properties. Then, taking a page from FernGully: The Last Rainforest, the movie introduces our young protagonist to a race of plucky pixie people who are at war with a destructive force hell bent on razing the forest they call home.
In FernGully, they were fairies who fly and fight pollution embodied as Hexxus. In Epic they are blossom-producing "leafmen" who ride hummingbirds and fight boggins, the forces of rot—or essentially death. The stakes couldn't be higher, but the filmmakers' decision to pull their punches on the film's violence and death scenes deadens Epic's emotional weight. Do kids need to see one of the heroes roughed up by sneering insect thugs? Probably not. But why include it at all if the action is going to be awkwardly framed out of the shot? Why make a movie with death as the villain if you're going to spend its running time shielding kids from the consequences of death?
It's a lame move on director Chris Wedge's part, and one of many that makes Epic feel bland and unremarkable. Its characters are archetypes we've seen again and again: the absent-minded professor, the rebel without a cause, the sulking teen, the heartbroken war hero, the villain bent on world domination, etc. Keen visual storytelling, snappy dialogue, or even sparkling voice acting performances might spark some originality into them. But Epic offers little of either.
Amanda Seyfried and Josh Hutcherson head the cast as two teens (one human, one leafman) who find romance amidst this adventure, but neither brings anything all that compelling to their part. Beyoncé Knowles makes a rare acting attempt here, yet offers little energy to the role of QueenTara, whose very existence allows life in the forest to thrive. Colin Farrell and Christoph Waltz have some moments as aging leafman warrior Ronin, and head boggin baddie Mandrake respectively. Jason Sudeikis and Steven Tyler are offered opportunities to ham it up, and do so well enough. But the only real standouts are Aziz Ansari and Chris O'Dowd as Mub and Grub, who provide the movie's sorely needed comic relief from tedium. The latter earns laughs as a snail who aspires to be a leafman, and Ansari steals scenes essentially as Tom Haverford the slug with swagger for days.
Epic is not a bad movie. Its story is sloppily told without a lack of forward momentum, but it has some fun characters, and a handful of amusing moments. While its animation isn't Pixar level, it is at times quite lovely with unfurling ferns and explosions of armored boggins masquerading as tree bark. Thinking back, it's a shame that Epic's most interesting character design is a one-eyed, three-legged pug with bad hearing named Ozzie. A plot device more than an actual character, Ozzie is energetic, funny, and a little bizarre; all things Epic could have used more of!. When the title came up before the credits, I was reminded I'd been promised something epic. What I got was mediocre at best.