Review: Epic

EPIC – the new computer-animated film from 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios – marks an achievement of note, though not of honor: it is the most beautiful boring movie ever made. The 3D virtual photography is not merely eye candy; it is an absolutely stunning display of artistry, with vivid color and intricate details bringing its miniature world to life with breath-taking impact. Unfortunately, what happens within that world will be of little interest to anyone over the age of 12; the story – which is barely enough to fill an after-school special despite the presence of six credited writers – moves as slowly at the snail-and-slug comedy relief duo, whose unfunny patter leaves one yearning for visceral visual gags of director Chris Wedge’s Scrat character from the ICE AGE films.

Two plot threads intersect a bit conveniently in EPIC: After the death of her mother, Mary Katherine (Amanday Seyfried) is reuniting with her father, who believes a race of tiny people exist in the forest near his home. Meanwhile, the tiny forest people are fighting off the encroaching menace of Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) and his evil minions, who want to turn the forest to rot. Mary Katherine (who likes to be known as M.K. now that she is not a child) stumbles upon Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles), who has been wounded after performing a ceremony to select a magical bud that will crown a new queen. M.K. is shrunk down to size, joining forces with the noble warrior Ronin (Colin Farrell) and the brash young Nod (Josh Hutcherson). There is a time-lock involved: the bud must bloom beneath the full moon at a very particularly time; otherwise, it will yield not a new queen but an evil dark prince.

Will M.K.’s quest to aid the Leaf People somehow resolve her estranged relationship with her father? You bet it will! Not that anything she learns or does leads to any maturation on her part; it’s enough just to know that his belief was not sheer lunacy after all. Unfortunately, that revelation occurs in the first reel, leaving little to develop over the remaining hour-and-a-half, which is loaded with more than enough action antics but not nearly enough of whatever magic elixir it is that makes us care about what is happening on screen.

Mandrake the meanie, voiced by Christoph Waltz
The characters are all defined in simple ways, which should be good enough in a fairy-tale world of the imagination, but somehow never generates the primal sense of identification that should come from a confrontation between Good and Evil. Mandrake is a meanie but not a particularly memorable one; even with the benefit Waltz’ voice, he never truly becomes a man you love to hate. Farrell fares a little better as the stoic Ronin because we’re supposed to imagine a softer side hiding beneath, but Nod’s character arc is as soporific as a lotus flower: he bristles at the rules and does things his own way, until he learns better. (This worked much better when the film was called RISE OF THE GUARDIANS last year.)

The dialogue (especially when it turns to jokes) lacks zing. The one exception is a brief hysterical bit, with a fruit fly going through it’s entire life cycle in a few seconds. The lesson here is that brevity is the soul of wit; unfortunately, EPIC takes its own title too close to heart, stretching its events out as if they were epic in grandeur and therefore needed to feel epic in length.

Ozzie the dog (here with the miniaturized M.K.) steals the show
Sadly, this is not due solely to the script. As a director, Wedge attempts to build suspense – within individual scenes and within the film as a whole – by dragging out sequences that should have been short and snappy. He fares much better when avoiding dialogue and characterization; the film’s most fully realized character is Ozzie – an endearing one-eyed, three-legged dog who is as close as the film ever gets to capturing the manic energy of Scrat.

As for the rest: given forest full of beautiful creatures* (courtesy of production designer William Joyce, whose children’s book inspired the film), Wedge has little imaginative idea what to do with them. At various times, ravens and bats (for the bad guys) and hummingbirds and finches (for the good guys) duel in elaborate aerial battles, but none of them exhibits any defining flight pattern (you would think the hoovering hummingbirds and the acrobatic bats would offer an opportunity for an interesting match of competing skills, but you would be wrong). Instead, Wedge relies on sheer numbers to dazzle the viewer: so many birds that you cannot tell which is which, so many bats that they coalesce into an ominous cloud (admittedly, the last is a plot point, as they must blot out the full moon before it helps the bud bloom).

The stoic Ronin (Collin Farrell) astride his trusty hummingbird
Wedge is at his best when portraying the pomp and circumstance of the Leaf People’s ceremony; otherwise, he is unable to invest the images with much excitement, let alone any kind of dramatic resonance. An exception is a doleful shot of a riderless hummingbird, waiting faithfully on a moonlit branch for a warrior we have seen fall in battle. A few more moments like this, and EPIC would have come closer to earning its name.

The final conflict is nicely realized if a bit generic, and the two plot lines finally dovetail nicely (M.K.’s dad discovered the voices of the little people while recording the sounds bats make to summon each other – a recording that proves useful at a crucial moment).

Even here, the film cannot resist the urge to over-egg the pudding, as the moment before M.K.’s return to normal size is elongated to allow a final romantic clinch with Nod. The filmmakers seem unperturbed by the notion of romantic longing frustrated by relative size, but no doubt they expect to shrink M.K. down again for a sequel – or, god forbid, turn the tables by growing Nod.

Queen Tara amidst the beauty of the Leaf People's world.
If not for the visual splendor, EPIC would be a total time-waster. Bereft of a compelling story, the imagery is better served in the film’s first trailer, where it is augmented by Snow Patrol’s song “The Lightening Strike” – which works much better than the Beyonce tune heard in the actual film. The haunting riff of “The Lightening Strike” suggests the epic grandeur that EPIC strives but fails to achieve. Potential viewers are advised to stay home and watch the trailer. Or better yet: watch THE SECRET WORLD OF ARIETTY.

[rating=2]

On the CFQ review scale of zero to five stars.

FOOTNOTE:

The one exception is Queen Tara, who angular facial lines are more suggestive of a plastic doll recreation of a Disney villainess.
EPIC (20th Century Fox: May 24, 2013). Directed by Chris Wedge. Screenplay by James V. Hart & William Joyce and Daniel Shere & Tom J. Astle & Matt Ember; from a story by William Joyce & James V. Hart and Chris Wedge, inspired by Joyce’s book “The Leaf Men and the Good Bugs.” Rated PG. 102 minutes. Voices: Amanda Seyfried, Collin Farrell, Josh Hutcherson, Beyonce Knowles, Blake Anderson, Steven Tyler, Aziz Ansari, Chris O’Dowd, Pitbull.