Sunday, May 12, 2013

'Epic' (2013) directed by Chris Wedge

How do you judge the success of a children's film?  I saw it with a cinema full of kids who laughed (though not uproariously) at the jokes, shut up for the emotional parts and I didn't see any particularly miserable children on the way out.  There's certainly a convincing argument to be made that if a film aimed at children succeeds in entertaining them then it's a success.  So what separates, say, Finding Nemo and Shark Tale?  What's the quality that makes Kung-Fu Panda so much fun to watch and Bee Movie so dire?  To young children the difference is intangible, but even so, deep down they must sense the difference in quality.  Why else would films like Wall-E be so beloved and Robots (by the same director as Epic) be so forgotten?

Epic firmly lands on the Shark Tale and Bee Movie side of this argument.  It's an aggressively generic animated film by numbers, populated by stereotypes with the vaguest possible emotional motivation, comedy animal sidekicks and a yawning void when you search for any thematic meat to bite into.  

So um, here are your characters.  It pretty much goes from left to right in terms of 'wackiness'.
The plot: war in fairyland.  Deep within the forest there's a conflict going on between the good hearted and pure Leafmen and the sinisterly degenerate Boggans.  This goes on unnoticed by the human world due to the fact that they're so small and because they move much faster than humans.  Thrown into this turmoil is the 17 year old Mary Katherine, who gets shrunken, saddled with the task of delivering the blossom of power to the mystical caterpillar tree and must go on a voyage of personal growth where she learns that...  Huh. An hour after the film I can't remember. It's a meaningless platitude like 'be who you are' or 'love your Dad'.  Something like that.  You know the drill.

I like to think it's possible to detect when a film has been created with passion and intelligence rather than to make money.  In Pixar's best films you detect a distinct artistic vision that everybody involved in the film is working towards.  I don't want to come across as some Pixar snob though, when it comes to 3D animated films though, both Dreamworks and Disney have deeply impressed in fantastic films like How to Train Your Dragon and Wreck-It Ralph.  

Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles)
Unfortunately there is no inspiration whatsoever in Epic, you could feed these plot elements into a computer and have it spit out a rough simulacrum of what happens in this film. It's somehow especially more tragic for a big budget, mainstream animated release to be so bland.  The people making this film had the budget and the means to put their wildest, most original fantasies on screen, but what you end up with is a jumble of imagery appropriated from other films; namely Disney's Tinker Bell series and 1992's Ferngully: Secret of the Last Rainforest.  

Throughout I found myself wondering what the film would have been like if there'd been someone with a distinct artistic vision behind it, or a script that subtly raised issues even slightly more complex than growth = good and decay = bad.  One of my favourite recent trends in films aimed at children is the absence of unambiguous evil.  My favourite example is Pixar's Ratatouille, where villain Anton Ego undergoes a total transformation purely through the talent and good nature of the protagonists.  More complex examples are found throughout the work of Hayao Miyazaki, with films like Princess Mononoke presenting multiple sides of a conflict in world populated with characters with actual reasons behind their actions other than that they're intrinsically 'good' or 'bad'.

The villainous and two-dimensional Mandrake (Christoph Waltz)
There's none of this in Epic.  The entirety of the villain's society is presented as irredeemably corrupt and everyone involved in it is under a presumptive death sentence, including, presumably, the soldiers' offscreen wives and children. It's deeply unattractive to see our heroes crowing in joy as they watch someone get eaten alive by a dog purely by dint of them being born on the wrong side of a conflict.  What makes feel even ickier is that the villain's philosophy that the forest needs rot and decay is absolutely correct.  Without decomposition where are the nutrients in the soil to allow our heroes to live in their sunny tree houses?  But all of this this is swept neatly under the rug in favour of a dull Manichaean conflict that has no tension, no intelligence and no thought behind it.

Perhaps this would be tolerable if Epic was at least entertaining to look at, but you've seen this all before.  When you consider the leap forward in animation techniques that Brave represented last year, it even looks slightly dated, especially in regards to character design (specifically their hair).  There are some interesting elements in the action scenes, one chase scene that exploits the difference in time between the fairy world and the human race approaches a low level of fun, and the brief scenes where the shrunken Mary Katherine learns she can jump higher are vaguely exhilarating, but this just isn't enough to carry a film.  

Professor Bomba (Jason Sudekelis) and Mary Katharine (Amanda Seyfried)
If you like animated films with personality, artistic vision and intelligence don't go and see Epic.  I'm sure Blue Sky are perfectly capable of putting out some fantastic work but the more money this makes, the more it'll encourage them to continue in this dire vein.  Epic is the very definition of inconsequential, the cinematic equivalent of fast food, bland and completely lacking in nutrition.  Audiences, adult and child alike, deserve cinema a hell of a lot better than this.


Epic is on general release from May 22nd.

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