You'd be forgiven for looking at the poster or trailers for Epic and thinking that it's an empty amalgamation of animated films past. Fern Gully could get dragged out yet again since the story takes place in a magical forest. Heck, it's also ok to be a bit nervous about the quality based on the relationships set up in the big world. There's a scientist in Rick Moranis mode with just as many wacky gadgets to spare.
For this week, take a chance and give Epic a spin. It's not an animated film with a deliberate message about the environment, gender roles, storytelling, or all the things that seem to crop up with decreasing effectiveness in Pixar's output. Epic is simply a solid yarn from a talented director who knows how to guide a team of artists and voice actors to delight even if the destination seems a little bland.
Yet, for all of these potential tours into mediocrity, Epic constantly rights itself. The story is told from the perspective of two worlds. Mary Katherine (Amanda Seyfriend), helpfully shortened to M.K. quickly into the film, is dealing with the recent loss of her mother by moving back in with her estranged mad scientist father Professor Bomba (Jason Sudeikis). He, supposedly, went mad investigating the presence of another society of tiny creatures that can't be easily detected because of how fast they can move. Of course, he's correct, and the second story starts with Nod (Josh Hutcherson) and his guardian Ronin (Colin Farrell) protecting the Queen (Beyonce Knowles) from the death-obsessed Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) as she picks her successor. Through a series of unfortunate turns M.K. becomes the tiny guardian of the next queen while searching for a way to return home.
That's a lot of plot threads, without even including comedic relief or other minor points, and Epic isn't entirely successful at making them all interesting. I glanced at the screenwriting credits and the answer to the problem became clear, but also pointed to a strength. There are five different screenwriters credited for the film, including William Joyce, the author of the source material. As such the story meanders into broad parallels that don't do much for the film. M.K., for example, lost her mom, so it's no surprise that Ronin lost his father. The good guys are protecting life, and the bad obsessed with death. Whatever element is introduced, its polar opposite is somewhere in the film.
But with the array of writers comes a different payoff that is normally impossible with that many hands on the page. Each scene, no matter how familiar it feels, has a deft touch and usually pays off in a quick, delightful joke or gorgeous image. Joyce, as well as director Chris Wedge and other members of the creative team, have all worked on Oscar-winning shorts. It's easy to call this a strung-together series of shorts but when all of them are as well done as the ones in Epic it's difficult to complain. My favorite involved the life and sudden death of an insect, topped off by the wonderful line, "The forest trembles at the passing of the humble fruit fly."
That carefree spirit that accompanies each scene bleeds into the cast as well. This is the first time I've heard many in the cast bring animated figures to life, and they all are having great fun with it. Special attention should be given to Christoph Waltz, though, who has been so successful at playing eccentrics in Quentin Tarantino's films. He turns those unusual mannerisms into a delightfully fey vocal performance mirrored by the smooth undulations his characters dark body ripples through as he luxuriates over every syllable.
On top of these little joys Epic is absolutely gorgeous. The same luxuriating attention to detail that Waltz pays to his words is shared by the animators at bringing this world to life. I can scarcely think of more vibrantly animated landscapes, so picturesque that when we go in closer and see wonders like a peaceful hollow containing scrolls that predict future events, it feels natural and unexplainable all at once. The character designs are in the tradition of the old Disney characters - that being a bird is a bird but a mushroom that can talk is a person. The character designs are cute and fun while they float free in the many tours of the landscape. But it's those natural creatures, the birds and the hilarious pug, that caught my eye every time with their unpredictable motions.
Epic, in many ways, is a creative response to last year's Rise of the Guardians. That film dealt directly with weighty topics like the silence of God, but got confused with whether it wanted to follow its deeper impulses or remember that kids might prefer cheer to distract them from a cold universe. Epic may be less ambitious in its themes, but gives assurance of ongoing life with vibrant humor and warmth, even if there's no one looking out for us in the end. I was still reassured and, like all good comfort food, I went to bed content.
Directed by Chris Wedge.
Based on the book written by, with screenplay assistance from, William Joyce.
Starring Amanda Seyfried, Josh Hutcherson, and Christoph Waltz.