May 25, 2013
To be fair, director Chris Wedge (of Ice Age and Rio) has created a nature-based fantasy engaging enough that it will find an audience, but when one changes the name of a movie from Leaf Men to Epic, one better come with one’s A+ game, no?
Epic qualifies for a solid C, which is still a passing grade, but if you brought that home to mom, she would be displeased. This over-plotted muddle with under-drawn characters is saved by a handful of characters’ well-defined personalities and the beautifully rendered environments in which they interact.
It doesn’t help that director Wedge was comparing his newest with the grandiosity of Star Wars and Avatar. While both those incredibly successful action-ers demonstrated numerous breakthroughs in film technology, Epic fails to bring much advancements, and even brings distracting notice to the continued limitations of animating human characters with the complexity viewers are coming to anticipate or even perhaps expect.
The story is of teenager Mary Katherine (or M.K., played by Amanda Seyfried of Les Miserables) who is sent to live with her absent-minded professor of a dad who obsesses about a world of little forest creatures and humanoids that keep the positive forces of nature in sync. MK magically shrinks down to their size and becomes embroiled in the fight by the good side to save their forest from the evil forces who make all life wither and die.
M.K. and her teen counterpart Nod (Josh Hutcherson of Hunger Games) are very nicely developed characters with backstories that help connect them to the audience, making us care about the story’s outcome. The forest baddies are led by Mandrake, played by the spectacular Christoph Waltz. Many other movies have been named as influences or blueprints of Epic.
While there are elements reminiscent of FernGully, Avatar and Honey I Shrunk the Kids, there is enough new story and enough character development to allow Epic to stand on its own. However, there are weaknesses that are hard to overlook here.
Great editing in Rio, which created the impressively tight pacing, is missing. The story sequences often seem disjointed, and the timing is all over the place, sometimes appropriately fast-paced, sometimes lagging enough to make moments awkward when they shouldn’t be. Some characters’ relationships are not built enough for us to really grab hold and get behind their motivations.
And as to that, the character animating and voicing is where the biggest problems lie. While the various flora and fauna of the forest are delightful, clever and at times, inventive, the human characters, both from real life (M.K and her father) and from forest life (Ronin, Nod, Queen Tara) are way too under-drawn, almost to the level of video game avatars.
Their speech is not well synched to their animation. This is made all the more noticable by the decided lack of inspired voice acting, though that’s not pervasively true. Christopher Waltz creates another inspired villain, playing with his voice throughout, and further showing his range. Colin Farrell, Aziz Ansari and Chris O’Dowd are also inventive with their vocal choices.
With these notable exceptions, the voiceovers are merely passable to actively weak. Beyonce is particularly bland and non-descript. Since she plays the character who keeps the magic of the forest safe, that’s a bit tragic. Steven Tyler as Nim Galuu is no doubt supposed to be trick casting, but just comes off sounding like an exhausted “Wavy Gravy” after a weekend at Woodstock.
In both these cases, why not have hired one of the award-winning voice actors building their names creating books on CD?
All this is particularly unfortunate since animation has always been the place where the most talented voice actors could exhibit their best work. Even with Beyonce, Steven Tyler, Colin Farrell and Amanda Seyfried as stars, the filmmakers don’t list them at the beginning of the film.
In animation, that has always been the case. The artistry of animation takes center stage, and the vocal artistry is celebrated at the end, in the credits. So many incredibly talented voice actors out there at the top of their craft would have been able to build a bridge from the weak storyline and character animation, raising the quality of Epic significantly.
In this case in particular, hiring big names was not in the best interest of the film. It also continues a precedent that may be to the detriment of future animation features….Perhaps a bit more auditioning is in order? The studios would do well to remember not every live actor can be as good vocally as John Goodman.
Will Epic be something movie fans number among their favorites and rush out to buy when it arrives on Blu-ray? Not likely. Knowing the state of the animation industry, and how artists and animators put their hearts and souls into their craft, hoping to create something truly special, makes this end result very disappointing indeed.
Will Epic be that lovely family matinee for a rainy Saturday, so missing from area multiplexes of late? It is certainly diverting enough and has enough bright spots to fit that bill.