We’ve had a pretty great run with animated films lately, haven’t we? There have been some that haven’t exactly lived up to expectations or ones that would appeal solely to young kinds, but until Epic none of them in the past several years have been truly awful. Without mincing words, the latest effort from Chris Wedge and the team at Blue Sky (creators of the Ice Age franchise) is unquestionably as lazy of a good looking film as audiences are likely to get. When people flippantly complained that Avatar was a rip off of Ferngully, they clearly never thought that a film like this – which cribs heavily and hamfistedly from both – would have ever been made. Also, did I mention that it’s really bad?
Teenage Mary Katherine, or M.K. for short (voiced by Amanda Seyfried), heads deep into the woods to spend some time with her estranged father Professor Bomba (Jason Sudekis), an eccentric scientist who thinks there’s an advanced race of microscopic creatures and people just beyond our sight. It turns out that he’s right, as one night M.K. gets shrunk down and enlisted to help in a battle she wants no part of. She’s tasked with protecting a plant bud that contains “the life of the forest” for a band of warriors known as Leafmen, led by proud warrior Ronin (Colin Farrell) and the reluctant, impulsive, teenage rule breaker Nod (Josh Hutcherson). The bud contains the essence of their fallen queen (Beyonce Knowles) and will give rise to her heir, but an evil band of creatures known as The Boggans – led by the evil Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), himself out for the revenge of his son. The Boggans hope to steal the bud to give rise to their new heir and spread rot and decay throughout the land.
Aside from everything looking really nice, almost everything else about this film is perfectly wrong from top to bottom in such a baffling and almost incoherent way that it’s hard to know where to begin picking it apart. The story comes adapted from a pair of books from author William Joyce, who also co-writes and gets a story credit here along with four other writers, and the wealth of cooks in the kitchen tripping over each other is obvious. The tone of Epic vacillates wildly between wanting to talk about family and responsibility, to brain dead action film, to comedic road movie, to war film, to a flat out incoherent mythology where nothing at all is explained and the motivations of both the heroes and the villains aren’t fleshed out in any remotely satisfying way. Good guys are good and bad guys are bad.
The characters within this story are as stock and bland as humanly possible. Watching them traverse through these beautiful looking forest locations is akin to eating boiled water with salt in it that someone’s trying to pass off as soup being served in fine china. M.K. and Nod are the worst kind of teenage archetypes; the kind that seem focus grouped to death with no personality of their own outside of a shared kind of sullenness. Mandrake and Ronin are both duty bound warriors that simply do their jobs. M.K.’s dad is an embarrassing rip-off of Professor Frink from The Simpsons to such a degree that it’s hard not to outwardly cringe whenever he’s on screen. It’s all the more distracting because Epic seems so slapped together out of spare parts from other franchises that no one bothered to notice that absolutely none of the main voice cast is right for these parts since they all have voices that overpower their on-screen avatars. Anyone who knows what these actors look like in real life will not be able to suspend their disbelief, especially with regard to Farrell’s character, who looks more like Powers Boothe or R. Lee Ermey that anyone even slightly Irish. It also wastes Christoph Waltz, which is a crime in and of itself.
There are precisely three characters in the film that make this thing just a sliver better than a complete write off. The first and best is a three legged, elderly dog with one good eye who never says anything and is the best character in the film as a result. The others are the wisecracking comedic relief duo of a snail and a slug, voiced by Chris O’Dowd and Aziz Ansari, respectively. They know how to read these lines and get a few chuckles out of them, but as character’s they’re still boring, shapeless comedic relief. At least they’re putting in a little extra effort.
So many plot threads in Epic go unresolved or unexplained that the film becomes a total mishmash of ideas. It almost goes hand in hand with the film’s distressing need to stunt cast musicians in seemingly key roles. Beyonce is only there to give some sort of surface credence to a malformed view of how this world operates. Steven Tyler shows up as a caterpillar and “keeper of the scrolls” in the worst written and possibly most useless role in the film. He never says anything valid, proves time and time again that the scrolls containing the entire known history of the forest past and future mean nothing, and he’s given approximately a third of a musical number before the film gives up almost on a dime from going further in that direction. Worst of all is Pitbull, playing a bullfrog mobster that looks, well, exactly like Pitbull, who glowers, reads lines off a page obviously, tells the villain where our heroes are, and is never heard from again.
Given how great computer animation has gotten over the decades, it should go without saying that Wedge’s film has the look of technical competency, but there’s so little actually going on that it’s still a complete bore. After about the fifth or sixth instance of our characters whipping through the woods on the backs of hummingbirds with no variation in how it’s done, it’s positively tiresome. The large scale battle sequences are uninspired and devoid of any emotional reasons to care. Every set piece looks and feels almost exactly like the one that came directly before it. The action is just boring chase after boring chase and it makes the already far too long 100 minute running time feel like an eternity.
Shoddy and forgettable, Epic might be one of the most ill titled films ever. It seems more like wishful thinking than an actual title. It’s hard to even figure out what exactly is so “epic” about it. It’s surely not the action and there’s no way in heck it’s the story. In a summer that’s been largely strong out of the gate, Epic sadly becomes the season’s first large scale misfire.