by Joseph "Jay Dub" Wade

EXPECTATIONS: A year ago, Blue Sky released the first trailer for Epic, showing off a lush forest landscape unlike anything in that studio's chronically bland Ice Age films. It also featured practically none of the inane comedic trappings that make so many animated films these days completely insufferable. This looked like a cartoon that might actually offer something kind of thrilling, the kind of film Pixar could have made five years ago. Then a slug showed up and Aziz Ansari's voice came out of it. I should have known better...

REALITY: It's not difficult to see what Blue Sky was aiming for here. Based on a children's book by William Joyce, Epic tells the story of the eternal battle between the good and evil forces at work in the forest, and the average person forced to rise to the occasion. References to Avatar, Ferngully, and The Borrowers are inescapable, yet the film's story is so broad and generic that you could reasonably name-check six other films at random and they'd probably resemble something going on in Epic.

All you had to do to prove the existence of the little people this whole time was look at a bird. Who knew?Following her mother's death, Mary Katherine (Amanda Seyfried) returns home to stay with her estranged father (Jason Sudeikis), a scientist who has thrown away his entire life to study what he believes to be a race of tiny people living in the forest. It's not long before the ever-skeptical MK discovers that dad is right. She stumbles into the world of the forest people, where pint-sized Forest Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles) comes under attack from the evil Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), whose ultimate goal is never fully explained.

Tara shrinks MK to the size of a bug and tasks her with protecting the royal seed pod until it blooms. Helping her are Ronin (Colin Farrell), leader of the queen's army; Nod (Josh Hutcherson), a young rogue with a thirst for danger; and Mub & Grub (Aziz Ansari, Chris O'Dowd), a slug and snail team, because kids would riot in the streets if this movie didn't feature an animal that said something.

I would also mention that Steven Tyler and Pitbull are in this movie, but at this point all I'm doing is naming characters. Everyone has a role to play here, and most of them stand around waiting to check off their box on the hero's-journey scorecard. That in itself wouldn't necessarily be a problem if the film were written with any sort of depth. But no, Epic feels like a second draft with highlighted buzzwords filling in for actual plot and character development.

Take MK's character arc, for example. There is a widening gulf between her and her oblivious father, which is what her journey is supposedly all about. His family left him because of his obsession with finding the tiny leafmen. The moment MK enters that world, as soon as she realizes he was right all along, her story is effectively over. Epic patches over this empty void of character development by handing the film over to Ronin and Nod, who have their own father/son story to work out. From this point, most of the things that happen to MK have little to no bearing on her whatsoever. While it's rare to see a female protagonist in a film like this, MK is little more than a blank slate the film uses for exposition.

Mandrake is even more problematic. Even though he's the primary villain, he only gets ten or so lines in the entire film. His presence is felt throughout, with constant images of rotting trees and dead plants encroaching on the forest, but rarely do we ever actually see him. He wants to see the natural greenness of the forest rot away. Why? Because he's the king of rot; he's death incarnate. It seems like the film wanted the creeping rot to be the real threat, like a Tolkien-esque shadow, but that would have meant no fight scenes and no reason to have tiny soldiers ride around on hummingbirds. Suddenly, there go two-thirds of the movie's characters. Epic needs a character like Mandrake, but it doesn't have any clue what to do with him.

The talking critters loiter in the corner of the frame like Michael Myers hides in closets.

Mandrake's defining feature is the dead-bat skin that he wears as a cowl. With pointed ears and a long, flowing cape, Mandrake flies around on a live bat, with a swarm of other bats to do his bidding. He's also working through some familial grief of his own, so it's entirely possible that he is Batman. Do they want us to conflate this character with the dark knight? Why? Are they trying to use Batman as a metaphor for the darkness invading children's entertainment? Possibly.

When you consider that the most kid-friendly character in the whole movie is Ozzy, a ragged pug (that doesn't talk) with three legs and one eye, it's not hard to see that something is wrong in the world of Epic. Ozzy is practically on death's door, but he's also the liveliest, most energetic character in the whole film. The filmmakers clearly want us to view a simple, fun character like Ozzy as outdated, past its prime. In his place, all we have are smiling blobs voiced by stand-up comedians.

The encroaching darkness isn't an ecological disaster; it's an entertainment apocalypse, apparently citing Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight cycle as the primary culprit. Grimdark ghouls are turning the vibrant field of children's entertainment into a wasteland of empty heroics and savage villainy. A bold statement coming from a film that makes expert use of its 3D animation for about 15 minutes before falling back into the pattern of yet another generic hero's journey. Epic might be a cautionary tale, but without a well-rounded script, what it's cautioning is completely open to debate. Entertainment? The Environment? Everything all at once? Who knows? Epic sure as hell doesn't.

3D Perspective Tricks5/10
Mub & GubMore Like Gog & Magog!

MINORITY REPORT: Why do all of these films need to find a new type of animal to give a voice to? Have they run out yet? Were slugs and snails the absolute bottom of the barrel? Can we go back to dogs now? Dogs are always a safe bet. - Ian "Professor Clumsy" Maddison

- The Official Current Releases Facebook

– Joseph "Jay Dub" Wade (@JayDubSA)

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