Let’s get one thing out of the way: “Epic,” the latest from Blue Sky Studios (the “Ice Age” films, “Robots” “Horton Hears a Who” and “Rio”) is at times breathtakingly beautiful. The Chris Wedge-helmed feature presents a visual step-up for Blue Sky and we are luckier for it. The film features a rich and compelling vision of a forest populated by a variety of tiny creatures and protected by the Leafmen.
Leafmen, who most closely resemble tiny humans, don weapons and travel by hummingbird, are locked in combat with the Boggans, led by Mandrake (Christoph Waltz, enjoying himself despite lacking motivation or really any memorable lines). When the Queen of the Forest (Beyoncé Knowles) is threatened during a ceremony to name her successor, Leafmen leader Ronin (Colin Farrell, toned down and all the better for it) crosses paths with M.K. (Amanda Seyfried) and the duo must deliver a flower bulb to a legendary location and…save the forest. Along for the ride is Nod (Josh Hutcherson), a fast-talking rebellious young warrior who rejects the discipline of the Leafmen but respects surrogate father Ronin.
M.K. is our protagonist, a teenage girl sent to live with her distant scientist father (Jason Sudeikis), incidentally obsessed with the miniature civilization he believes is teeming right under our very eyes. It’s a familiar concept in a familiar film but “Epic” remains uplifted by the intricacy of design – an opening aerial chase is a high-speed thrill and the first forty five minutes do a fine job of establishing the dynamics and dynamism of the forest and it’s many inhabitants. The craftsmanship of the water and the foliage is a exemplary and moments of small-scale epic action are staged with grandeur and imagination.
So what keeps “Epic” from standing shoulder to shoulder with Pixar’s finest? As you might have guessed from the lackluster advertising, it’s the story that’s the letdown, with a read-it-and-weep five screenwriters pitching in to help tell a tale “inspired by” William Joyce‘s book, “The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs.” Joyce is credited among the writers, while the resulting film is seemingly ticking off the necessary components to corner the kid quadrant – take a panoply of celebrity voices, throw in two oblivious yet useful comedy sidekicks (Chris O’Dowd and Aziz Ansari), a relatable protagonist with unshakable humanistic convictions, a morally sound heroic older male, a handsome love interest who’s bound to learn a lesson and a villain whose very appearance makes a case for his deviousness.
It’s especially regretful since the film tackles all these elements but fails to unearth any inspiration or even major laughs. Mandrake is seemingly motivated to turn the forest into a rotten wasteland by the death of someone close to him, but we don’t spend nearly enough time with the big baddy to flesh him out in the slightest. Waltz’s memorable cadence is ever-present but the lines he’s fed have all the staying power of a leaf in the wind. There’s a message of individuality married to community loyalty that’s embodied by the Leafmen and an eco-friendly undercurrent but the film commits to both of these more in wordless moments of graphical superiority.
“Epic” lacks many of the trademark elements that have come to define Blue Sky offerings – this is hardly a bad thing, since much of the slapstick poised to attract younger children made for significantly less entertaining films. That Chris Wedge and co. take a more mature approach to this film should be lauded but alas, despite several moments of thoughtful, quiet near-bliss and well-crafted action beats, the overall product is underwhelming. Visuals aside, the film’s title belies a story that’s anything but. [C+]