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Immersed in Movies: Exclusive Early Peek at Blue Sky’s Star-Studded ‘Epic’ — ‘Avatar’ Meets ‘Gladiator’

Immersed in Movies: Exclusive Early Peek at Blue Sky's Star-Studded 'Epic' -- 'Avatar' Meets 'Gladiator'

Blue Sky founder and director Chris Wedge recently gave a
sneak peek of his latest animated feature, “Epic” (May 24), at Fox
(you can view the new trailer below). Judging by the footage, the
action-adventure, set in a microscopic forest world, represents Wedge’s most
ambitious and personal movie. He describes it as both “a departure and
evolution” for Blue Sky. It’s certainly no “FernGully,” and it’s
a far cry from “Ice Age” and everything else Blue Sky has ever made.
It’s more like “Avatar” meets “Gladiator,” if you had to
pin it down.

In fact, Wedge told me that he wanted a live-action,
kick-ass sensibility and was particularly influenced by the cutting and pacing
of the battles in Ridley Scott’s Oscar winner. He sought swashbuckling and
naturalism new to animation in look and performance. At the same time, Wedge
was stylistically inspired by the illustrations of N.C. Wyeth and Arthur
Rackham. He also very loosely based “Epic” on “The Leaf Men and
the Brave Good Bugs,” the illustrated book by his good friend William
Joyce, who helped design “Robots.”

Basically, “Epic” is a twist on “Alice in
Wonderland,” in which the daughter of an absent-minded professor (voiced
by Amanda Seyfried) catches a glowing, falling leaf and shrinks into a hidden
world where nature is protected by Leafmen: samurai-like warriors that ride
humming birds, led by Ronin (Colin Farrell). She encounters a newbie Leafman
(Josh Hutcherson), the Mother Nature-like Queen of the forest (Beyonce), slug
and snail sidekicks that serve as comic relief (Aziz Ansari and Chris O’Dowd),
and the villainous Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), leader of the Boggans, dedicated
to destroying the forest.

“I’ve been thinking about this one for a long
time,” Wedge recalls. “Bill Joyce and I were talking about working
together in 1998. We met for dinner and he told me about how he’d spent the
afternoon at the Frick Museum in New York. He showed me the brochure for a show
about Victorian fairy paintings: Immersions in fantasies and adventures in the
woods and these little creatures taking part in coronations and weddings and
funerals. And I thought this is where we go for a movie right here. We talked
about it on and off over the years and Bill did his ‘Leaf Men’ book, but it was
never the inspiration for the movie. His book is charming and beautiful, but we
created a new story and a new world.”

Wedge started designing “Epic” in 2005 and ’06
(he prefers the lower case spelling to evoke a sense of irony) before going on
hiatus until 2009. It was a case of reverse engineering. “What are their
personalities and what are their issues? This is backwards. The characters and
nuances are the last things that come and then we have to do all the work to
make it all communicate properly.”

Wedge makes no apologies: it’s not intended to be cute. And
while “Epic” is shot and paced more like live-action than animation,
the performances are also more nuanced than the broad animation they’re used to
at Blue Sky. As far as convincing humans, it’s a breakthrough for them. The
attention to subtle emotion is evident even in the few scenes that I saw.

But when it came to casting his villain, there was obviously
no compromising or casting against type with Waltz. We only caught a glimpse of
him in a couple of scenes, but he’s very droll. Yet imagine how daunting it was
for Wedge to be in a recording booth with Waltz, who earned his second best
supporting Oscar last month for “Django Unchained.”

“Christoph is one of these actors that inhabits, so he’s
not just going to read the lines over and over,” Wedge suggests.
“He’s doing the scene and he’s doing the scene with you. And so I’m
reading my lines, and I look up and there’s Christoph burning a hole in my head
with his eyes.”

While “Epic” easily could have been a hybrid, Wedge
says it wouldn’t have been as magical. “In my head, I just pictured people
in those samurai costumes riding through the woods, but the style of the humans
and the style of the world are pulled from the same fabric this way. And it’s
easy to immerse yourself in it because the whole thing has a degree of artifice
behind it.”

Thank goodness there’s still a stylistic divide between
live-action and animation.

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