Monday 20 May 2013

Epic review

Epic (U, 102 mins)
Director: Chris Wedge
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

With an output over the last decade or so that includes Robots, Rio and the Ice Age movies, animation studio Blue Sky has a track record that could probably be best described as spotty.

That mediocre run continues with their latest big budget animated adventure, another in which you can see the money up on the screen, but which is tonally all over the place and sorely lacking when it comes to memorable story or characters.

The title would suggest something sweeping and grand, and while that’s what aimed for, it’s really not what we get. Instead we’re served up a rather po-faced mythology about noble forest-dwelling Leaf Men who need their queen to choose her heir, something that can only happen once every hundred years. If she can’t find someone the forest will be desiccated by the baddies, rat-like creatures called Boggans.

The Leaf Men are responsible for the balance of the forest, and this slapping around the head with its eco-message is the first of Epic’s missteps. The battle with the Boggans is represented by fairly impressive if frantic action, mostly consisting of bow-and-arrow fights and chases on the backs of saddled birds, ripped from Avatar but also providing the most enjoyable moments of the movie, impressively choreographed and pleasingly executed.

Meanwhile, in the real world, which is populated by plastic-looking people, late-teen Mary Katherine (Amanda Seyfried) goes to stay her nutty professor father following the death of her mother. She wants a normal dad, one who isn’t obsessed with trying to find the tiny people at the bottom of the garden, but throwing in the dead mother is a desperate grasp at gravitas that never really gives us anything to invest in.

When the queen (voiced by Beyoncé no less) is attacked by the Boggans while MK (as she likes to be called) is passing by, before you can say Honey I Shrunk the Avatars she has been zapped down to the size of the Leaf Men. She comes into possession of the Life of the Forest, a magical pod she’s charged with keeping safe until some gobbledegook about it blooming in the moonlight can come to pass.

Aiding her in this is a pair of comedy molluscs in the shape of Chris O’Dowd and Aziz Ansari, and though some humour is important, does it really need to be provided by a talking slug and snail? Also inhabiting this forest world of good versus evil is a young guy called Nod (Josh Hutcherson), who is yet to earn his stripes among his Leaf Men soldier community. He’s a crashing bore, saddled with that glossy-haired animated hero look that hasn’t changed since Aladdin and was most recently repeated in the equally lacklustre The Croods.

The story never develops to a level beyond your bog-standard eco-toon like FernGully, and last year’s Tinker Bell and the Secret of the Wings covered much the same ground with better results. It’s not as dull or unengaging as some recent efforts, but still pretty flat and thematically there’s more than a hint of The Wizard of Oz in the young woman who is discontent with her own existence.

Look to the source material as blame for that. Epic is based on an illustrated children’s book called The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs by William Joyce, who also wrote the stories on which last year’s Rise of the Guardians was based. It’s a title that, while a clumsy mouthful that couldn’t possibly be used for a movie, at least gives a much clearer picture of what’s at play here.

It’s a fine swarming spectacle bursting with colour, majoring in bucolic grandeur to offset the tedious and goofy world. But though very pretty indeed, green and lush and detailed, all it really achieves is to prove once again that animation needs to be much more than just a series of good looking pictures.

Along with the nice visuals, an accomplished voice cast manages to keep it tolerable. A restrained and solemn Colin Farrell is Ronin, the leader of the Leaf Men, while Christoph Waltz wheels out another of his fast-talking villains.

But if ever a title makes promises the film can’t cash, this is it. Pedestrian, ordinary, derivative and bland are all words that could be used to describe Epic, but if there’s one thing it most assuredly isn’t, it’s epic.

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