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Non-Review Review: Epic

Epic looks stunning. While it doesn’t necessarily push the envelope in terms of 3D rendering or animation, it’s often quite beautiful to watch. Even in 3D, the vibrant greens radiate off the screen, with the characters having a pleasant elasticity to them. The action sequences are well-staged and the choreography is generally impressive. However, despite this, Epic winds up feeling rather shallow. Perhaps it’s a result of the decision to develop the world as a priority, rather than the characters inhabiting it.

The story is more a collection of familiar tropes and set-pieces than a compelling narrative, and none of the lead characters are ever developed beyond basic archetypes. There’s the plucky heroine, the roguish hero, the gruff mentor, the free-spirited wise oracle, the drôle accented bad guy, the comic relief and even the kooky dad. None feel of any real substance, which is a problem when you’re executing a plot as straight-forward as this.

It's a slug's life...

It’s a slug’s life…

To be fair, it’s possible that Epic is intended to serve as something of a throwback to the children’s adventure movies of the nineties and eighties, blended with eco-moral family stories of the same period. Certainly, Epic feels more at home grouped with FernGully or Captain Planet than with Kung-Fu Panda or Rise of the Guardians. The movie would have been quite impressive released a decade or two ago, a collection of thrills and chases and gags that could keep the young audience entertained.

However, family films have – broadly speaking – matured in the years since. In a large part due to the early work of Pixar, it became standard to expect these movies to have multi-faceted protagonists and to grapple with relatively complex ideas. Although Pixar’s latest output (like Brave and Cars 2) hasn’t measured up to that standard, the best family entertainment in the past decade has realised that spectacle is only half the battle. The best Dreamworks films (How to Train Your Dragon and Kung-Fu Panda) have embraced this philosophy.

Mice to meet you...

Mice to meet you…

So Epic feels like a throwback. It’s the story about a young girl who is magically shrunk and allowed access to a secret world of fairy-like creatures waging a constant war between life and decay. Following the death of the queen, the fate of the forest itself is up for grabs, with the forces of light and darkness both seeking to grab power in the ensuing confusion. Actually, the whole world might be up for grabs. Some characters speak as if it is, but the film’s unclear on the scale of the threat. Is this the conflict between life and decay, or just one small front in an on-going war? Is it simply that this forest is the world as far as its inhabitants are concerned?

Epic doesn’t waste any time on character work. The heroes race to secure the future of the forest while the villain plots to ensure his own triumph. The problem is that all of this feels rather rote. The villain is given a personal motivation early on, but it’s never really developed and feels rather generic. The heroic characters are given back story, including lost loved ones and unspoken feelings, but it all feels as if the writers opted for the most simplistic origins possible – and never bother to develop them.

Going green...

Going green…

Mary Katherine lost her mother, and claims to be working her way through the stages of grief. You’d imagine that, forced to live with her absent-minded father, that might come up again. It might resonate with the fact the villain lost a son, perhaps. Witnessing the cycle of life in the forest, she might reach some conclusion about the relationship between life and death. However, it’s established and then quickly forgotten about. There’s a passing reference by her father at the end, but no development and no closure. The same is true of all the characters.

The cast don’t necessarily help. Some of the performers don’t lend themselves well to voice work. Colin Farrell struggles quite a bit, and is hopelessly miscast as a wise elder figure. Josh Hutchinson can’t define his roguish lead. Amanda Seyfried feels a little lost as she tries to figure out her own character. Pitbull and Steve Tyler are clumsy in supporting roles. Beyoncé actually makes a convincing spirit of the forest, and probably has a solid future in voice-work if she wants it. Chris O’Dowd turns in a great performance as one half of the movie’s comedy supporting duo, which is actually where the movie works a bit better.

Eco-warrior...

Eco-warrior…

The animation is top-notch. The movie draws in a slug and a snail as comic relief, and the physical humour involving the pair (and their eyes) works very well. There’s a nice touch of slapstick about it. Visually, Epic is impressive. I particularly like the way the movie suggests that these tiny warriors are moving out of synch with the larger objects – the dogs and the human characters moving in slow motion in the background of various action scenes provides a neat visual, as does the image of these tiny critters flickering in and out of existence.

The production design is lovely, and some of the sequences are impressive. To be fair to the script, it does try its best to create a fully-formed world inhabited by these creatures, falling back on genre clichés. There are armies and ambushes, and prophecies. There are gambling dens and illegal races and oracles and gathering. This is all pretty generic stuff that should be familiar from all manner of classic adventure films, but Epic does it quite well. Nothing here is novel or exciting, but it is well-rendered and constructed efficiently. The notion of a library of knowledge buried inside a tree-trunk is nice, and Queen Tara’s trip through the forest looks lovely.

Don't you know about the bird?

Don’t you know about the bird?

Watching Epic, with its “regular-sized person in a super-sized world” vibe and its constant set pieces, I couldn’t help but feel like I had been transported back in time to the nineties. The worthy ecological message (“the good guys need all the help they can get”) is part of that, but this also feels like one of the platform video games, complete with generic levels and running and jumping. (In particular, I was reminded of the wonderful Donkey Kong Country.) These platformers looked fun and were reasonably exciting, but were hardly deep and well-plotted.

Epic feels like watching somebody else play an impressive videogame. It’s nice to look at, but it doesn’t hold the attention.

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10 Responses

  1. Pretty on point, except for suggesting that Brave isn’t up to Pixar standards. It’s a bit of an acquired taste, I’ll warrant, but after repeated viewings and consideration, it’s probably one of their top 5 films.

    • Maybe a re-watch will soften my opinion. It was a lot stronger than Cars 2, but I still didn’t warm to it too much. I felt it lacked the nuance of the better earlier Pixar films. The fact that Merida learns to compromise is undermined by the fact that she doesn’t have to – it feels like a cop-out. Of course, having her agree to an arranged marriage to a person she didn’t love would be a controversial ending of itself, but so would defying her parents and responsibilities. It just felt like the ending was contrived so there was no real pay-off to anything. There was no easy answer to the dilemma, which I liked, but the fact there ended up beign a convenient “out” felt like a cheat.

  2. Kind of reminds me of Fern Gulley The Last Rainforrest

  3. I just finished watching this movie with my family…and then, I read this review. “It’s nice to look at, but it doesn’t hold the attention”…? …? What…?! Obviously this reviewer doesn’t particularly like these kinds of movies – and IT DEFINITELY SHOWS! This movie was SO MUCH better than this review could ever give it justice! Not to mention (as was not) that William Joyce’s own daughter, Mary Katherine, died of a brain tumor when she was only 18 years old and the lead character (also named Mary Katherine or MK, for short) and the movie itself were dedicated to her – which in itself gives this movie a whole new sense of actual human depth and meaning that goes far beyond just the story on the screen. Please don’t read this review and think for a minute that it justifies itself by it’s content. This movie is so much more than what’s written here.

    • What do you mean when you say “these kinds of movies”? I love family films. I enjoyed Wreck It Ralph and Despicable Me 2. I adore the two Kung-Fu Pandas.

      At the same time, that doesn’t mean excusing bad family films like Brave or Cars 2.

      I am very sad to hear about the death of the author’s daughter, but it doesn’t improve the quality of the film. It might contextualise it, and it provides a heart-warming meta-narrative, but it doesn’t improve the performances or make the script work better.

  4. Casting for the voices is what made me lose interest after seeing the first preview. Celebrities are usually horrible at voice-work and ruin the experience.

    • I don’t know. Celebrities can be good. I liked Tom Hanks as Woody, for example, and Billy Crystal is great as Mike. That said, professional voice actors can be stronger than regular performers – there’s a subtle art to voice-over performance that not all actors understand. I think that comedic actors tend to do better than straight dramatic ones.

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