Naming a film Epic is asking for a lot, especially when it’s based on a children’s book of a different and less demanding title, “The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs” by William Joyce. Mirriam-Webster defines ‘epic’ as “extending beyond the usual or ordinary especially in size or scope.” To focus Epic on inherently small things, like insects and miniature people in a world of forest trees and underground hives, is a problem in of itself. Sure, things may look “epic” from the characters’ point of view, but from the perspective of a human being in the audience, not so much. Luckily the visuals do look epic, they just don’t feel that way. This is due in part because of the relatively banal storyline and uninspired character design for the protagonists. It’s still a very playful film with just enough depth to satisfy adults, but as it tries to balance emotion and a tone oriented toward small children, it falls short.
Epic flaunts an all-star voice cast, and each one seems to have a lot of fun with their respective character. Christoph Waltz voices the villanous Mandrake, leader of the Boggans, a group of familiar and unfamiliar insects bent on sucking the life out of the forest, which is protected by the Leafmen. The Leafmen are led by their ethereal Queen, voiced by Beyonce, and their illustrious military leader, Ronin, voiced with the soulful Irish calmness of Colin Farrell. In the middle of their ongoing battle is Mary Katherine, or M.K., voiced by Amanda Seyfried. M.K. is a lost teenager (full sized human being) looking to reconnect with her neurotic estranged father, Professor Bomba (voiced by Jason Sudeikis), after the loss of her mother. A series of magical events turn her small and she gets immediately swept up into the miniature world and thrown into the fight between good and evil. Oh yes, there are also two bumbling snails (sorry, one’s a snail and one is a slug), voiced hilariously by Chris O’Dowd and Aziz Ansari. These two are charged with sacred guardianship duties, but are obviously present for comic relief. The assortment of voice types is one of Epic‘s redeeming qualities. It’s especially fun listening to Waltz’ menacingly perfect pronunciation being commissioned for an animated character.
Chris Wedge, who directed Robots and Ice Age, handles the story’s movement well. It’s fast-paced and gives ample time to each character, save one — the romantic male lead, Nod, voiced by Josh Hutcherson. Bearing a striking resemblance to Flynn from Tangled but not nearly as charismatic, Nod is a weak romantic lead with a formulaic storyline that plays second fiddle to a more emotionally impactful romance that ends too soon in the film. Though the filmmakers may disagree with the associations, Epic brings up familiar thoughts of Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, Avatar, and even Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. The filmmakers also hoped to advance the scope of the story by breaking away from the plot of the original work. Blue Sky and 20th Century Fox may have overshot a bit. Perhaps the movie just needed to be longer, but then it wouldn’t fit the general children’s film guidelines. I suspect they faced these dilemmas in production and chose to go the route that would increase box office potential.
Epic sets the tone in the first few moments through a meaningful voice-over that brings attention to a whimsical yet very real struggle in nature, and it’s apparent that this story was ripe for a more serious tone throughout. Instead, the five Epic writers (that’s a red flag, right there) infuse too much generic storytelling and dialogue aimed at young children. Many scenes attempt to balance the two opposing tones, but an emotionally touching moment or a quick one-liner disrupt either one’s groove. On the other hand, there are some very inventive moments that benefit from gorgeously rendered environments and clever cinematography. Some scenes are a wonder to behold, and unlike most 3D cinema fare, this one uses the extra dimension wisely in both gimmicky and involving ways. Kids are sure to enjoy Epic from beginning to end. As an adult, I suppose I was unfairly hoping for something more…epic.
Epic opens in Bay Area theaters today.