[24 May 2013]
Over the past two decades, children’s book author and illustrator William Joyce has attained the distinction of logging time at almost all of the major animation studios producing theatrical releases. He did some design work on early Pixar movies; his book A Day with Wilbur Robinson was turned into the non-Pixar Disney feature Meet the Robinsons; he worked on Robots at Fox’s Blue Sky studios; and he helped adapt his Guardians of Childhood books into the DreamWorks feature, Rise of the Guardians.
Now Joyce has hopscotched back to Blue Sky for Epic, based in part on his book, The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs. Epic marks the return of Chris Wedge to directing (he made the original Ice Age in 2002, and 2005’s Robots). All of these factors add up to this: a kids’ movie by kids’ movie veterans that is surprisingly unimaginative.
Epic is an action-fantasy with plenty of comic relief and diversions. Though it aspires to state-of-the-art cross-genre family entertainment, its closest cinematic cousins are decidedly late ‘80s/early ‘90s retro. Epic is basically FernGully: The Last Rainforest, with a dash of the backyard setting and absentminded dad from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
The movie begins on a melancholic note, with Mary Katherine (voice of Amanda Seyfried) arriving at the isolated house of her oddball professor father (Jason Sudeikis), following the death of her mother. He’s obsessed with finding and observing a race of miniature beings who live in the forest near his home. Mary Katherine—or, as she prefers to be called, M.K.—rolls her eyes, until, when following her father’s dog into the woods, she crosses paths with Queen Tara (Beyoncé Knowles) and finds herself shrunk down to roughly bug size, small enough to ride around on birds, which is exactly what the tiny, noble Leaf Men do.
The Leaf Men, led by Ronin (Colin Farrell), defend Queen Tara and the forest itself from the evil forces of the Boggan, led by Mandrake (Christoph Waltz). The Boggan, for reasons left unexplained, want to turn their surroundings into a decaying kingdom of rot. Tara, in contrast, presides over growth and harmony with the regal, encouraging tones you’d expect from a character voiced by Beyoncé, who has worked hard to cultivate an image as a most nurturing superstar.
Beyoncé is most famous, of course, for her powerful singing voice and phenomenal stage presence; she also gave a terrific grown-up performance as Etta James in Cadillac Records. As a voice actor, though, she’s surprisingly stiff (a quality echoed in the movie’s other gimmick voices from the music industry: Pitbull gets ridiculously high billing in the credits for mumbling a few lines as a toad, while Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and American Idol sings half a song before doing a sedated take on his goofball-shaman persona). Tara isn’t on screen much, but her followers and the movie hold up Queen Tara as a supreme benevolent leader, kind, even-tempered, all-powerful, yet ready to kick ass when needed. She might resemble an empowered Disney princess, if only the movie could stop reminding the audience of how awesome and empowered she is; it goes so far as to have a little girl fan tell her, “You’re kind of my hero.” In terms that might be drawn from Beyoncé‘s own career, Tara’s more like a self-promoting press release than a triumphant song of independence.
The movie is similarly schematic. For about 40 minutes, it sets up a number of interrelated plots: Queen Tara flirts chastely with Ronin; Ronin chafes against his mildly rebellious surrogate son Nod (Josh Hutcherson), M.K. tries to connect with her dithering father, and the forces of good and bad confront one another repeatedly. With so many story arcs and life lessons teed up, the immodestly titled Epic begins to sag under an ambition that is technically large, yet creatively too familiar and stagnant.
Much like Rise of the Guardians, this adaptation of a Joyce book operates by the principle that you can never have enough nonsensical mythology to accompany the detailed production design (which is impressive, right down to the details of the Leaf Men’s suits of armor). Accordingly, the screenplay keeps piling on mystical narrative contrivances—like the room full of scrolls that automatically record everything that happens in the forest—rather than taking the time to develop the characters who most need it, namely, the non-mythological M.K. and her father.
In lieu of such development and in spite of the production design, Epic takes visual shortcuts. Mean-looking birds like crows are bad, friendly-looking birds like sparrows are good. The good guys look like humans with cute green-leafy accouterments while the bad guys look like upright sharks in armor. The movie even brushes aside a brief attempt to give Mandrake some depth in the form of a loss in his family. His grief becomes just another meaningless engine for good-versus-evil skirmishes.
Puzzlingly, amidst its protracted battles, Epic offers no clear environmental parable: the ostensible “balance” between Tara’s powers of growth and Mandrake’s powers of decay receives only cursory attention. Mostly, decay is bad and needs to be itself destroyed. Any further message about, say, less natural threats to forest life are lost in the feel-good fantasy and litany of half-hearted kid-movie payoffs. Nature is all connected! Listen to your children! Work together! This excess of morality and mythology gives Epic a synthetic, plastic feeling. This is fantasy epic as product, not magic. In the end, the movie is as generic as its title.