What do you see when you walk through the forest? Most likely a serene cornucopia of flora and fauna. But what makes the leaves rustle and the animals scurry? No it’s not just the wind or your presence that startles the animals. If you look closely there’s a battle raging for the fate of the very same forest you might find yourself passing through and that, in a nutshell, is the very simple premise of Blue Sky Studios’ Epic. It’s an imaginative tale that tries to get adults, and kids, back to the days when wonder, intrigue and the sense of discovery that was found seeking adventure right in our own backyards.
William Joyce’s The Leafmen and the Brave Good Bugs serves as the inspiration for Chris Wedge’s Epic. It tells the tale, two really, of a mystical kingdom in the forest whose princess is seeking an heir to look after the Eden-like Moonhaven. She and the Leafmen, led by their general Ronin and his reluctant lieutenant Nod, protect the vitality of the forest from Mandrake, leader of the Bogons, who want to destroy it. At the same time a teenage girl named Mary Katherine (or MK) is trying to reconnect with her eccentric shut-in scientist father (imagine a mix between Ray Stanz, Wayne Szalinski and Doc Brown) by showing up at his remote county home. For years her father has been seeking proof that these Leafmen exist but one day MK happens upon the diminutive Princess and is magically shrunk to their world. Now, like any and all fish out of water story, she is tasked with helping the Princess find an heir and keep Moonhaven’s magical podling safe.
Chris Wedge, known for the wonder and fun of films like Ice age and Robots, set out to show us a world full of awe and he sure delivered. Not only is this fantasy world he imagined beautiful, it’s infinitely intricate and further becomes a fascinating trip into places we’d never think to look. The combined forces of Chris Wedge, William Joyce and James Hart (and concept artist Greg Couch) create a story and a universe that is fantastically intricate. Everything in this tiny world is micro-stylized and detailed to the nines. Robots was endlessly fascinating (and entirely underrated) as the engineered world yielded a wonderland of spectacle. The same goes for Epic, if not more so, as this collection of forest creatures and their “epic” battles is sure to draw ohhs, ahhs and a lot of laughs.
That’s easy to do because Epic, though cartoony, is just gorgeous. The advancements made in computer effects and rendering programs give the animators the ability to create living breathing characters and fixtures/settings so real that, especially with the 3D, are nearly tangible. One drawback, and this negatively affects the presentation of all 3D films not just Epic, is that the glasses create a muddy effect that hinders the exhibition of this vibrant world. It never feels as immersive as it should be but that’s not the fault of the Wedge and the filmmakers, just the exhibition methods of the movie house (read: see this in 2D). This especially works against the characters like Christoph Waltz’ Mandrake and the bogons to say nothing of the nighttime scenes or the subterranean chase scenes. Good news is that the vibrant scenes more than make up for the murky ones.
Anyway, behind the slightly muted but still gorgeous visuals lies a story that is rousing, fun, and highly comical. But something behind the imaginative setting feels a little flat yet somehow convoluted. Further it feels like an adventure story we’ve seen many times before replete with a forced and inevitable showdown and resolution; kind of a pity that something so inspired plays out so uninspired. Helping give life to this world is the voice cast which is impressive yet they are so easily identifiable the focus falls more on the voice than the character. It takes almost half the film before most talents start to gel with the animated persona. That’s not to say everyone is miscast, or more than the character requires, but there’s more emphasis on billable names than adequate talent. Case in point, Christoph Waltz as the villain is a little stereotypical. But this was 8 years in the making and Waltz was probably attached not long after Inglourious Basterds so that might explain it (though he’ll probably never play a role like this again now that he has 2 Oscars).
Even Colin Farrell’s voice takes getting used to but looking past the casting issues there’s no denying the coolness and smartness to the design and motivations of nearly everyone. In fact his character Ronin is kind of a neat idea. The name kind of speaks for itself, however if you aren’t up on your Japanese history, a “ronin” is what you call a samurai who doesn’t have a king, and in Epic he’s still lamenting the death of the old king. Seems that 8 years writing/re-writing this story offers lots of chances to show how smart this film is. Not all the time mind you but there are sparks of brilliance to this purported kid’s movie and truth be told it’s full of surprises.
Danny Elfman steps in to lend his musical talents to Wedge’s world and you’ll almost have to do a double take as it sounds nothing like his previous works. No Burton styled themes here, not even something that shows off his signature riffs like Raimi’s films, this is all new ground for Elfman. Much like his recent work on Silver Lining’s Playbook it’s so outside his wheelhouse you’d think there was a mistake in the credits. It’s got a sweeping folky sound to it, something between Celtic music and the fanciful whimsy of say Harry Gregson-Williams or Michael Kamen. Perhaps it was his understudy getting a go at the score but either way it’s incredibly refreshing to hear Elfman go for such a different sound that’s as energetic as it is cheery.
Epic walks the balance between something for the kids and something that will keep parents awake fairly well. However like clockwork, whenever something starts moving slow, gets too dark or just needs a change of pace, in comes the comic relief. If this were any other film, or any other voice talents really, this would be uninspired and formulaic. Yet that’s where the casting and pairing of Chris O’Dowd and Aziz Ansari work brilliantly. Their back and forth is fun, witty and really brings out the guffaws as they ridicule Nod like some unwanted little brother or more appropriately competition for MK’s affection. Epic may bite off more than it can chew, even the name sounds a bit ambitious if not pretentious, but it comes close to firing on all cylinders. The story is like a buffet of things we’ve seen before but its heart is in the right place. Further the humor and visuals help strengthen the thin and trite plot strings and round out this fun call to put down your iPad and have your own adventure as close as your own backyard.