Relative newbies to the animation game, Blue Sky Studios have long shown unfulfilled potential. Their Ice Age series managed to capture people’s hearts without ever producing a truly acclaimed film. Their best film to date, Horton Hears a Who! benefited from the talents of a literary creative. Epic, an adaptation of William Joyce’s The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs, is their most ambitious project to date. Is this the moment the Connecticut-based outfit arrives as an animation studio to be reckoned with?
The first thing to say about Epic is that the basic core of the plot bears a striking resemblance to my first book, which I am halfway through writing. I’ve been aware of this for some time and I always knew it would mean my experience of watching the film would be unlike anyone else’s. Fortunately the similarity between the stories is not so great that I should be worried about accusations of plagiarism but it has given me food for thought and as someone who has spent the last several months immersed in the concept of secret societies of tiny people I felt like I was in a privileged position to judge the film’s merits.
MK (Amanda Seyfried), a recently half-orphaned teenager moves in with her oddball scientist father at his backwater house on the edge of a green forest. Her dad is convinced there’s an advanced society of little people living in the woods and has sacrificed his scientific credibility and marriage in an effort to prove it. The thing is he’s completely right. The society in question is in fact two societies, those of nature and of decay. The former is governed by a serene Queen (Beyoncé Knowles) who can control the plant life with her mind, the latter by Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), a harbinger of death whose bug-like minions ride bats, their goal to spread the blight that will kill the forest. Their opponents are Queen Tara’s Leaf Men, led by Ronin (Colin Farrell), chivalrous warriors that boast hummingbirds as their mounts.
When MK is magically shrunk into this tiny world she must team up with Ronin and his wayward protégé, Nod (Josh Hutcherson) to protect a flower pod that holds the power of the forest’s renewal. This is a detailed world rich in visual creation that gives rise to an eventful story full of adventure and comedy. It’s certainly the best animation Blue Sky has produced to date and the complexities of the world hold together well in a sometimes complex plot. But for all the film’s successes it never quite gels into something completely satisfying.
Few of the characters are particularly memorable, including the rather neutrally-drawn MK. Her grief for her mother is touched upon but not developed beyond a context for her to move in with her dad which is a real missed opportunity to inject some meaningful emotion into affairs. The story doesn’t quite work as an eco-fable either. The themes of life’s struggle against the decay works on a basic level but the way the rodents are all bad doesn’t quite fit in with this and the depictions of good and evil are rather simplistic. There’s a richness to the storytelling here but it could do with more depth.
But Epic is still a very enjoyable adventure that will hold the attention and plenty of fun is had with the way the little people interact with the large world around them. There’s plenty of spectacle and the kids will find enough to laugh at in a pair of mollusc sidekicks. It’s a very noble effort from Blue Sky that works on many levels without quite reaching true excellence.
As an exercise in world-building Epic is right up there but it still lacks a few ingredients to make it a micro-sized adventure for the ages.