Reviews

Although Visually Splendid, "Epic's" Story Is As Generic As Its Title

Epic's screenplay keeps piling on mystical narrative contrivances rather than taking the time to develop the characters who most need it


Epic


Director: Chris Wedge
Cast: Colin Farrell, Amanda Seyfried, Josh Hutcherson, Jason Sudeikis, Christoph Waltz, Beyoncé Knowles, Steven Tyler, Aziz Ansari, Chris O'Dowd
Rated: PG
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-05-24 (General release)
UK date: 2013-05-22 (General release)
Website
Trailer

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.

4

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image