“Epic” (based on the novel “The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs” by William Joyce) is the latest animated film from the people who also brought us the seemingly never-ending “Ice Age” series, who didn’t know to stop at “Ice Age 3” and gave us “Ice Age 4” and will probably keep going until we reach “Ice Age Infinity,” and this work smacks of that same kind of repetitiveness, of plowing familiar themes until every ounce of creativity is gone. The premise of “Epic” is essentially “Avatar” (which in and of itself was swiped from “Pocahontas” and “FernGully”) mixed with “The Secret World of Arrietty,” the latter of which is a superior Studio Ghibli production, and even if your children haven’t seen either of those, “Epic” may still be a bit boring. Oh, little people live in the forest and there’s a scientist everyone thinks is crazy who happens to see them? And then there are monsters in the forest, too? And then the scientist gets caught in the middle of those two groups? Who could have ever seen that coming.
It’s not that I enjoy being tough on children’s films, but families shouldn’t have to settle for such mediocrity. Although “Epic” is marginally better than this spring’s “The Croods,” it still feels too expected, too broad in its themes. The film’s lack of specificity, either about the emotions we should be feeling or the messages we should walk away with, is what keeps it from being anything more than just technically proficient.
The film focuses on young teenager M.K. (voiced by Amanda Seyfried, of “Les Miserables,” “Gone,” “Red Riding Hood,” “Letters to Juliet,” “Dear John,” and “Jennifer’s Body”), who is forced to live with her estranged father after her mother passes away. M.K. hasn’t seen her father, Professor Bomba (Jason Sudeikis, of “The Campaign,” “Horrible Bosses,” “A Good Old Fashioned Orgy,” and “Hall Pass”), in years, not since he became convinced that very small people were living in the forest behind his house, riding little birds and insects, using little weapons and tools, and basically supporting an advanced society right underneath people’s noses. (Literally underneath, since these beings are only a couple of inches high.) But he could never find conclusive proof, and so he was discredited in the academic community, rejected by his family, and consumed with his work. When M.K. arrives, the house is in shambles, there’s nothing to eat, and he didn’t even remember she was coming. It’s not the greatest start.
Except, of course, that the society M.K.’s father is so desperate to find is actually real, and it’s locked in a war, with the good Leafmen, protectors of the Queen of the Forest (voiced by singer Beyoncé Knowles), battling against the evil Boggans, led by Mandrake (voiced by Christoph Waltz, of “Water for Elephants” and “The Green Hornet”). For years, the Queen of the Forest has had the ability to heal and grow things, whereas the Mandrake only has the power to destroy and decay; the two have balanced each other out (part of the reason why humans haven’t noticed the factions), but Mandrake is finally ready to make his move to eliminate the Queen of the Forest for good.
And, through some magical series of events, M.K. is shrunk down to the size of these creatures and ends up on the side of the Leafmen, meeting up with the Queen of the Forest’s closest protector and leader of the Leafmen warriors Ronin (voiced by Colin Farrell, of “Seven Psychopaths,” “Total Recall,” “Fright Night,” and “Horrible Bosses”) and teenager Nod (voiced by Josh Hutcherson, of “Red Dawn,” “The Hunger Games,” “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” “The Kids Are All Right,” and “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant”). Of course, there’s immediately a spark between M.K. and Nod, but it’s up to them to save the forest from Mandrake and Co.—meaning there isn’t much time for romance—and perhaps M.K. should find a way to become human-sized again so she can apologize to her father, too. Save the world; say sorry to your dad. Those are basically the priorities of “Epic.”
This is, of course, a lot for children to mull over: there are themes about death, the purpose of life, and the balance between the two all over “Epic,” on top of all the stuff about good versus evil and the power of love and whatever else. Ultimately, it’s just too much, and too generally. Characters die, but there is no real discussion of the impact of their loss. Each side, the Leafmen and the Boggans, wants to destroy the other, but the film doesn’t underline how the two have successfully kept the balance of the forest in check for years. And it seems like an easy way out to have M.K.’s father have been right all along; it’s an unchallenging message to be telling children that their parents are never incorrect and don’t have to own up to their mistakes.
So there are missed opportunities here to connect the audience with the material on an impactful, emotional level, and it doesn’t help that the mythology of the story keeps changing. The Queen of the Forest has the power to heal, but then the power gets transferred to a flower bud, and then the bud needs to bloom, but if it blooms in darkness it’s lost, and so on and so forth. It was hard to keep up with it all, and I’m an adult; I’m sure children may end up quite lost.
There are pretty things to look at if that happens—director Chris Wedge and cinematographer Renato Falcão do a nice job with the natural landscapes, especially waterfalls, trees, and fields of flowers that turn out to be mini people—but then the cast is there to pull you back out. Farrell is gruff and manly enough for his role as a military fighter, but his natural Irish accent seems so random here, as disjointed as Beyoncé’s purr (which has zero inflection) or Aerosmith rocker Steven Tyler’s charlatan-seeming caterpillar Nim Galuu. For all the expressiveness and energy Seyfried, Sudeikis, and Hutcherson bring to the table, there are others like Knowles and Tyler to take you right out of the moment. And so “Epic,” already uneven in its themes and narrative, becomes inconsistent in its voice acting, too—just another thing keeping the film thoroughly mediocre.
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