"Moist is what we do."
Blue Sky Animation Studios is a solid anomaly in the animation world. Like a workhorse pitcher, they never seek to surprise or keep anyone on their toes, they just want something that goes right down the middle of the plate. They rely more on stunt casting & crowded, busy composition than they do on creative voice casting or innovative storytelling (the hallmarks of the better animation studios in the industry).
Therefore, it's hard to be too critical of their latest animated feature, Epic, as it has no real ambition beyond getting kids to sit down and shut up for ninety odd minutes. Don't get me wrong, there's lots of things to nitpick and pull apart in this film, but because it took no real risks, it's virtually impossible for me to look down my nose at the film. Maybe I'm just getting soft, but judged solely on its ambitions, Epic achieves more or less exactly what it set out to achieve.
M.K. (Amanda Seyfried) has just moved in with her estranged father Bomba (Jason Sudeikis) following the death of her mother. Bomba searches the forest surrounding his home incessantly for evidence of little leaf men, coming off like a cross between Doc Brown & Wayne Szalinski, so basically, not fit to parent. Meanwhile, we discover that those little leaf men he's in search of really do exist, and there are two factions at war with one another. One faction, The Leaf Warriors, serves Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles) in service of keeping the vegetation and plant life of the world healthy. The other, The Boggins, serve under the guidance of the maniacal Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), and seek to destroy all plant life, and thrive in its rot.
When M.K. has had her fill of her crazy dad (after what only seems like a few hours) she decides to run away, but finds herself thrust into the middle of this battle. She is presented with a magical bud that, when it blooms, will become the savior of The Leaf Warriors. She is shrunk down to their size, and joins a faction of warriors led by Ronin (Colin Farrell) & Nod (Josh Hutcherson) who must get the bud to Nim Galuu (Steven Tyler), a caterpillar (I think), who will know how to make it bloom and save their world.
My first, and most immediate, gripe with Epic is that it doesn't feel like its own movie. It borrows so liberally from other works of fantasy & animation that it can't help but feel derivative. Among the many stories it borrows from are Ferngully, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, The Lion King, Disney's Fairies films, and Avatar (a shocking statement as that film was borrowed almost wholesale from other works). It never truly feels like its own film, and that's a shame because there are some interesting ideas at play here. It feels like a kindred spirit to Zack Snyder's 2010 film The Legend of the Guardians, a film that tries to cram three films' worth of story and adventure into ninety minutes, and ends up feeling rushed and ultimately unsatisfying.
There are two things that I will give this film a ton of credit for however. First, it has the courage of its convictions to kill off a major character at the end of the first act, and then leave that character dead. Not many animated films do that anymore, and even those that do, almost always end up bringing that character back from the dead (I'm looking at you Rise of the Guardians). Second, the film has a handful of very creative visual sequences. The first major action setpiece (in which said character dies) is fantastically well done, and the film's running gimmick of having the little people's world run at a faster speed than the human world is very clever. Whenever the two worlds collide, the animators do an interesting job of conveying this, and it works better than virtually anything else in the film.
But like all Blue Sky films, this one is only as good as the mixed bag of a voice cast assembled to bring these characters to life, and here we have some good highs and some disastrous lows. First, there's solid work in smaller roles from good comedic actors like Sudeikis, Chris O'Dowd, Aziz Ansari, Judah Friedlander & Kyle Kinane. Then you have decent, if phoned in, work from respectable actors like Waltz & Farrell and work that's serviceable, but nothing to write home about from Seyfried & Hutcherson.
Then there's the ridiculous stunt casting. I know she's a mom, but Beyonce's voice is anything but matronly, and she sounds about twenty years too young for the role of the queen. And have none of these animators seen Steven Tyler's atrocious voice work in The Polar Express? What were they thinking giving him a character with more than two or three lines? Then you have Pitbull, most famous for thinking that the words brilliant and billions rhyme. Again, he's got a small part, but the measure of how good a complete film is, is in how well even the smallest roles are cast. I hate to use this analogy twice, but they just appear to be aiming right down the center of the plate, trying to appeal to as many people as possible, but can we please stop casting musicians to do major voice work in high profile films? It almost never works out well.
Epic is anything but, and while that's disappointing, it's anything but unexpected from an animation house like Blue Sky. Even their best work is mediocre, and they don't appear to be aiming for anything more. I'd take a film that shot for the moon and fell way short over a film that aims for Poughkeepsie and lands right in the middle of the town square. Your kids (under 10) will likely enjoy it much more than you will, but as C.S. Lewis said, "a children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest."
GO Rating: 2.5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]