The latest production from Blue Sky Studios draws inspiration from The Incredible Shrinking Man, A Bug's Life, Antz, Avatar and others to tell a family-friendly tale of environmental harmony. I need to expand my critical vocabulary, though, because "clever and amusing" were the first adjectives that came to mind after watching Epic, and that's what I tweeted, and that's how I intended to begin this review.
And then those words started to sound familiar to me, as though I'd read them before, and I checked our archive and was abashed to realize that I used those exact same adjectives to begin a lengthy article about 2012's Ice Age: Continental Drift and Blue Sky Studios.
Indeed, Epic is not only cut from same cloth as the company's other films, it hews so closely to the pattern established in Ice Age more than 10 years ago that it's fair to describe them as fraternal twins, part of a family of animated siblings. Blue Sky Studios has carved out a healthy share of the animation market by aiming its sights lower, as it were, targeting a younger demographic than what is currently pursued by Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks. Epic does not stray very far, if at all, from that well-trodden path.
Company co-founder Chris Wedge, in his first solo outing as a director -- after sharing directing credit with Carlos Saldanha on 2002's Ice Age and 2005's Robots -- keeps the pace lively and the action easy to follow. Most of the running time is spent with the good guys, leaving the villain the absolute minimum of space to establish his evil intent.
That is one of the elements differentiating Blue Sky Studios from other animation companies. My childhood, for example, was spent being terrified by one or another of Disney's classic villains, who reveled in their villainous villany. Here, though the enemy is voiced by Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds), the bad guy is never portrayed as being too evil; even when he holds two of the good guys hostage, he's less interested in hurting them physically than in gaining an advantage for his dark forces.
Humans, animals, insects, and tiny armies of humanoid creatures coexist in this world, though the humans are largely ignorant of what lies beneath their feet. Mary Katherine, who'd rather be called M.K. (Amanda Seyfried), visits her father Bomba (Jason Sudeikis) at his home in an isolated forest where he obsessively studies the flora and fauna. He's convinced that he can hear voices coming from tiny creatures that live in the forest, an unproven obsession that drove his wife away and broke up the family. M.K. wants him to leave, to resume a normal life among other people, and pushes hard.
Bomba, however, is absolutely correct, as M.K. learns to her dismay when she is shrunk to insect size and discovers a magical empire ruled by the benevolent Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles). Tara, whose existence is tied inextricably to that of the forest, is nearing the end of her life cycle and must choose a new pod to be crowned Queen and keep the forest alive. The evil Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), who represents darkness, wants the Queen-blessed pod for himself, where it can serve his vengeful purposes, and to extract revenge for a perceived wrong committed years before.
Queen Tara is protected by General Ronin (Colin Farrell), the mighty warrior / leader of the Leafmen, proud soldiers mounted on hummingbirds. He enlists the assistance of Nod (Josh Hutcherson), a young and reckless Leafman who needs a little redemption, and catches the eye of the tiny-sized M.K. Their team is filled out by Mub and Grub, a slug and a snail, respectively, voiced by Aziz Ansari and Chris O'Dowd, who provide most of the comic relief. Their mission is to protect the pod from Mandrake and his horde of warrior bats until the pod can bloom and the balance of peaceful life can be restored in the forest.
It's all harmless enough, I suppose, and all in all a pleasant, optimistic experience, but the lack of any sustainable menace denies the film any deeper victory or sense of accomplishment. Maybe it's enough to share some laughs and imagine that a fantastic world of talking insects and tiny humans exists, right beneath our feet.
Epic opens wide in theatres across Canada and the U.S. on Friday, May 24. Visit the official site for more information.
Photo Credit: Blue Sky Studios - TM and © 2013 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not For Sale or Duplication.