Friday, May 24, 2013

Small Stuff: EPIC

The creators of the computer animated fantasy Epic created an intriguing fantasy world and failed to have anything interesting happen in it. The film imagines a society of bug-sized people living in the forest locked in a battle between the forces of growth and the armies of decay. Growth is represented by plant people, basically human shaped beings with toadstool heads or leafy limbs, who are protected by the brave Leafmen soldiers and bow to their beautiful forest queen (voiced by Beyoncé, pop royalty). Decay is represented by snarling hordes of grey-skinned creepers led into battle by their leader (Christoph Waltz). This potentially interesting world is the staging ground for simple fantasy storytelling at its most basic and predictable. It has a plot in which one-dimensional characters fight over a magical gee-gaw for some time and then it all ends in a big battle. Reluctant heroes find their destiny, outsiders become insiders, and good defeats evil. It’s all very tired.

I would imagine this is what a hypothetical American remake of a Miyazaki film would look like. It has a young girl for a protagonist (Amanda Seyfried), a normal human who is suddenly shrunk down to Leafman size and gets involved in the magical conflict. It has ecological themes that are occasionally prone to acknowledging that growth and decay need to be held in balance. It has a casual beauty to its imagined tiny world in which plants can be controlled with a wave of the forest queen’s hand. And yet, what seems so promising about all of the above is ground into a homogenized bore. A potentially lovely protagonist is turned into nothing more than honorary buddy to a stoic warrior (Colin Farrell) and token love interest to the warrior’s protégé (Josh Hutcherson). The environmental message is reducible to a good versus evil bumper sticker instead of recognition of nature’s natural order. And the animation, though technically proficient, is blandly obvious and overfamiliar.

Rather than take advantage of the potential in the world it creates, a world borrowed from a book by William Joyce, who has his name all over the credits (he’s co-writer, producer, and production designer), it simply coasts on formula. Indeed, the bulk of the imagination seems to have fallen to the casting, which finds surprisingly weird choices of voices to fill the supporting roles. Distinctive sounding comedians Aziz Ansari and Chris O’Dowd show up as comic relief slugs. (I found them more of a distraction, but maybe little kids will like them.) Rapper Pitbull plays a thug of a frog, an amphibian who for some reason sports a suit coat. Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler plays a shaman caterpillar named Nim Galuu (I just had to give you the name) who is so much a showman I thought for sure he was a charlatan. Not so, though. He’s just more weirdly comic support for the otherwise humorlessly serious rehashing of basic fantasy plot points.

In yet another missed opportunity, what with Beyoncé and Tyler and, okay, Pitbull in the cast, the film doesn’t even give us a good song to hum on the way out of the theater. In the end, there’s simply nothing to remember the movie by at all. Directed by Chris Wedge and produced by Blue Sky, the man and the company behind the largely forgettable and yet wildly successful Ice Age movies, I suppose I’m glad they’re trying something different. This isn’t just another lazily formulaic, pop-culture referencing, manic kids’ flick. Instead, it’s a lazily formulaic, mildly serious, boring kids’ flick. I certainly didn’t hate it. The colors are soothing, the motion smooth, and the comfortingly familiar structure has a lulling quality to it. All it lacks is a reason to care.

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