Produced by Blue Sky Studios, who also created Ice Age and Rio, 2013’s Epic is based on William Joyce’s 1996 children’s book The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs. Apparently such a title was too unwieldy for a motion picture, though Epic is not much better since it tells you nothing about the premise and invokes grandiose expectations that the movie simply cannot deliver upon. But while Epic is not as imaginative or exhilarating as the title would lead you to believe, it’s a decent kiddie flick that manages to entertain for its 100-minute duration. Nevertheless, it’s hard to overlook the flaws of the picture whilst examining it in hindsight – director Chris Wedge seems to be more concerned with marketing needs (a budding romance, a dashing hero, an attractive female, a heroes & villains tale) that he fails to deliver a genuinely breathtaking story. It’s a thoroughly mechanical effort, though it’s not without charms.
Following the death of her mother, M.K. (Amanda Seyfried) sets off to live with her daffy scientist father Professor Bomba (Jason Sudeikis). A detached oddball, Bomba spends all of his time trying to prove the existence of an advanced civilisation of miniature people living in the woods. These tiny individuals, known as The Leaf Men, are led by warrior Ronin (Colin Farrell), who lives to defend Queen Tara (Beyoncé Knowles), a royal with great powers that protect the kingdom. The sworn enemies of The Leaf Men are the wicked Boggans, who are determined to destroy the forest and stop Queen Tara from passing on her powers through a magical flower. When M.K. leaves the house in search of her father’s three-legged pug Ozzy, she encounters the tiny Queen Tara on the verge of death. Shrinking M.K. down to size, she is chosen by Tara to take the flower pod to magical caterpillar Nim Galuu (Steven Tyler). To protect her, Ronin calls upon his irresponsible godson Nod (Josh Hutcherson), while molluscs Mub (Aziz Ansari) and Grub (Chris O’Dowd) tag along for the adventure. If the flower falls into the hands of Boggan leader Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), the consequences could be dire.
Although Epic is technically an adaptation of Joyce’s novel, Wedge and the five credited writers (including Joyce himself) were on the prowl for an action-adventure story more in the vein of Star Wars and Avatar with a splash of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids for good measure, mangling the source beyond all recognition. Epic clings to uninspired writing chestnuts, and lacks the sophistication to make the picture truly soar like the best Pixar productions. Wedge has stated that comparisons to FernGully and Avatar are frustrating to him, but it’s a big problem that Epic keeps inviting said comparisons, whether intentional or not. An opening sequence depicting a few Leaf Men battling some Boggans is full of Avatar influence, with characters riding around on birds shooting arrows while Ronin weightlessly leaps from tree to tree. Sharper dialogue and stronger storytelling could have breathed originality into the familiar parts, but Epic falls short in both respects.
On a more positive note, the animation of Epic is expectedly bright and sumptuous, maintaining a strong sense of visual interest throughout. Although not as lusciously detailed as a Pixar effort, it’s good enough, with Wedge dreaming up a unique look that serves the material well. Whenever the movie is locked in action-adventure mode, Epic bestows major pleasures, and the third act in particular contains some nice payoffs. The music courtesy of Danny Elfman helps as well, giving the film a zippy pace. It’s a shame that the animation wasn’t supported by a stronger screenplay, but the visual efforts are appreciated nevertheless, ensuring the picture is enjoyable from start to finish regardless of its inherent flaws.
The main knock against Epic is the lack of interesting central characters. M.K. is Bella Swan, plain and simple, retaining the Twilight protagonist’s sullen personality and daddy issues. Rather than a sassy or involving lead, M.K. is a complete cardboard cut-out, a safely-designed female without a single memorable personality trait. Likewise, Nod is a bland, generically-designed pretty boy, and the romance that burgeons between himself and M.K. is exceedingly by-the-numbers. Even Ronin is flat, though Farrell tries his best to give the role some vigour. Only the supporting characters are capable of livening the proceedings, with the adorable pug Ozzy stealing his every scene thanks to the magnificent animation bringing him to life. There’s also the comedic duo of Grub and Mub, whose back-and-forth bantering never fails to amuse. Ansari retains the sharp comic timing of his work in Parks and Recreation to play Mub, and he lands the biggest laughs of the picture. None of the other characters make much of an impression, however – even Waltz is at his most forgettable as the stock villain. Mandrake is a flat antagonist, setting out to destroy the forest for no reason except because he’s evil.
Although this review probably sounds overly negative, Epic still works on its own terms as a kid’s movie. It delivers inoffensive entertainment for family audiences, and children will probably be enraptured by all the bright colours, vivid animation and exuberant supporting characters. It’s not the prettiest, funniest or cleverest of animated movies, and there isn’t much to inspire a passionate response, but it’s not dumb or annoying, which is a miracle. It’s fun and it packs a fair few effective scenes. You could do a lot worse.