We all thought it–well I certainly did–“James Joyce wrote a fairy tale?” No kids, it’s William Joyce, author and illustrator of The Leaf Men (1996) and artist/designer/writer of a number of notable animated films. It’s the first crack in the venerable armor of Epic (2013). Having watched a number of excellent animated films in the past week, I am inclined to expect too much from animation. Naming the movie “Epic” would have made my expectations atmospheric had it not been released about a month ago with little fanfare. So it wasn’t until I got my MoviePass account up and running that I got myself into a theater to check out this would-be epic. It was singularly not epic, but it was good and I suppose Good wasn’t much of a movie title.
MK (Amanda Seyfried) has just lost her mother and now has to move in with her estranged father, Bomba (Jason Sudeikis). Bomba has a theory that there is an advanced civilization of tiny people in the forest surrounding his house. MK blames Bomba’s obsession for driving the family apart, thinking the thing delusional. Meanwhile, in an advanced civilization of tiny people in the surrounding forest, a battle of life against decay is in full swing. The Life of the Forest, aka Queen Tara (Beyoncé Knowles), controls forest life and can rejuvinate the decay spread by Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) and his army of Boggans. A team of Leaf Men, led by Ronin (Colin Farrell), has the duty to protect the Queen and the other good creatures. MK’s arrival is coincidental with the concurrance of the summer solstice and the perigee of the moon–I know that word because such an event actually occurred this past weekend, which is either the biggest real-life coincidence or the worst film release planning ever–which is the time where the Queen must choose an heir as Life of the Forest, which takes some ceremonial doing. Events transpire such that MK is to protect the heir-pod with the help of the brash young Nod (Josh Hutcherson), a Leaf Man in training, that left because of his antagonism to authority.
Does that sound epic to you? For one thing, it takes place over a day or two and for another, it’s a basic quest. Take the thing to the guy who tells you what to do and then do that thing. Granted, that’s also the plot to The Lord of the Rings and that’s pretty epic, but that was one of three or four story lines and it took more than two days to get to Mordor. I grant you too that it has an epic cast structure: main heroine, roguish hero, straight-laced hero, all-knowing wizard, two fools, a precious item of power, and a pure-evil villain. That’s Willow (1988), Star Wars (1977) to some degree, and many others in fantasy literature. And I don’t fault the use of a template in the least, it grows out of a great and noble tradition, but those that claim and achieve an epic quality are of a far greater scale than Epic‘s horde of writers (James V. Hart, William Joyce, Daniel Shere, Tom J. Astle, Matt Ember, and a story credit to Chris Wedge) ever approaches. And a quick note to these fellows: back-story hinted upon is better than unnecessary exposition.
That is a semantic smear, let’s see if I can’t do a little better than that. The animation was rather pedestrian when placed along side the Pixar films I’ve seen of late (Ratatouille review, Monsters, Inc. review, Monsters University review). The action disguises speed with scale, building its world through blurs, jumps, and landings rather than designing in details. I’m not saying it’s bad or unwatchable, not in the least, but it isn’t anything special. The story, besides any claims on epic-ness, is roughly told by director Chris Wedge with a number of pace-killing bumps that one young person in the audience certainly felt. Bomba was ignoring his cameras precisely when his attention was required and the kid yelled out, “Check your phone!” Even that little boy was disgusted at the blatant tension-ratcheting going on before him when he was clearly tense enough. That boy was right.
Epic deals, as any action animation must, with the issue of death. Let’s not kid ourselves that there are many who do it right. Up (2009) comes immediately to mind and The Lion King (1994) in a quick search, but Epic is centrally concerned with death; death of the forest, death of MK’s mother, death of the [spoiler]. And yet, Epic does not extend its respect of life to the Boggans. Evil though they are, bursting one on a car windshield for a joke strikes me as taste-free. I am reminded of an early line in Much Ado About Nothing. “How many gentlemen have you lost in this action?” asks Leonato. “Few of any sort and none of name,” says the messenger.
I would like to point out something that might not be instantly obvious in my reviews. If I do not say “Do not see this movie”, I probably think it is at least entertaining and possibly edifying in some respect. Epic is entertaining and pleasantly manipulative. Do I feel that wave of happy contentment as I do after a Pixar movie? No.