Directed by Chris Wedge
Written by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember
We are living in a golden age of animation, yet so many people working at Hollywood’s studio-funded animation companies are content working in the realm of the familiar. Too frequently, new mainstream animated films are like a big bowl of soup, with countless flavors that you’ve tasted before tweaked only slightly to not be total carbon copies of something bigger and often better. Blue Sky’s latest, distributed by 20th Century Fox, is no different: Epic is pleasingly colorful and well animated. Unfortunately, it is immensely derivative and thus, only moderately charming some of the time.
It would take as much space to review this movie as it would to catalog its many inspirations (the word we’ll use in the spirit of being charitable) and describe exactly how Epic echoes them. Like FernGully: The Last Rainforest, our lead is a spunky human shrunk to the size of a bug, who has to fend off an antagonist who wants to destroy the beautiful, natural forest environment simply because it’s there. Our villain is a gruff, militaristic type; that, plus his facial design puts one in mind of DreamWorks’ first computer-animated bad guy, from Antz. And many of the flora and fauna in the tiny world our human lead descends into have eyes, ears, and noses built into their roots, much like the characters in some of the segments in Fantasia. The list goes on, and these familiarities often distract from the sameness of the general story, about a battle between good and bad forces in the forest that culminates with a prophecy by night that must be met (because of course, there is a prophecy in such films).
Blue Sky Studios, best known for the Ice Age franchise (Scrat makes an appearance in their company logo, to the delight of many, to be certain), has created a bright and inviting miniature universe, one that is far more compelling if mysterious than the human world itself. (The female lead, voiced by Amanda Seyfried, recently lost her mother and her eccentric-scientist father is too busy discovering the very universe she’ll enter to pay attention to her.) The struggle is in creating memorable characters, as opposed to archetypes that may have been shifted or twisted around slightly, but are essentially all the same old model of car with a new coat of paint slapped on top. We have the blandly attractive love interests: in this case, it’s Seyfried’s MK and a risky flier in the good-guy Leafmen tribe voiced by Josh Hutcherson. We have wacky comic relief in the form of a slug and a snail entreated with keeping a vital piece of the prophecy safe, voiced by Aziz Ansari and Chris O’Dowd. There’s the strong, silent good guy voiced by Colin Farrell, and so on.
Every so often, there are flashes of wit and intelligence, as in a gag involving a fruit fly, but for the most part, Epic is decidedly not. Familiarity does not always breed contempt, yet when watching Epic, it’s very hard not to be reminded of the many films it’s cribbing from, and how they were more successful. Like most non-Pixar films, as well, the voice cast is something of a distraction for the precise reason they were cast: their fame. At a crucial point, MK and her friends travel to the tree home of Nim Galuu, a seer-like caterpillar who guides the past knowledge of previous Leafmen tribes. MK is told he’s more like a “crazy uncle” than an elderly figure dispensing wisdom on a mountain; this makes sense, as Nim Galuu is revealed to be a louche talking, singing, Steven Tyler-like creature, and what ho! Steven Tyler is the voice of said character, the holder of eons of knowledge, an unintentionally funny concept indeed. Thinking of what inspired the filmmakers to cast the lead singer of Aerosmith in such a key role is far more entertaining than watching Nim Galuu interact with the other characters. (Tyler’s not the only musician among the cast: Beyonce Knowles voices the queen of the forest, and Pitbull a mobster toad, but they’re less of a bother.)
It wasn’t that long ago when we were lucky to get one animated movie from a big Hollywood studio a year; once, it was as much an event to go to a Disney movie as it is to see the next superhero blockbuster. Now, you can’t go two months without a studio-released animated movie, making each of these movies a little less special. Epic has impressive enough animation—and the 3D isn’t terrible, though a climactic action sequence set in a darkened landscape is fairly diluted through the format conversion—but it feels like the umpteenth version of the same Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey, and done in a way that’s forgettable instead of fun.
— Josh Spiegel