Friday, May 24, 2013

Epic: Wishful thinking

Epic (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: PG, and needlessly, for "scary images" and mildly rude language
By Derrick Bang

This is a gorgeously produced animated fantasy, with opulent visuals and a color palette that cleverly reflects the story beats; I’d expect no less from director Chris Wedge and his Blue Sky Studios, the folks who brought us the Ice Age series.

M.K. (voiced by Amanda Seyfried), suddenly responsible for the safety of a pod that
will help preserve the surrounding forest, fends off hilariously unlikely romantic
overtures from Mub (Aziz Ansari), a slug who fancies himself quite the chick magnet.
The impressive voice talent is well cast, with our primary characters granted personality and depth by Colin Farrell, Josh Hutcherson, Amanda Seyfried, Chris O’Dowd, Beyoncé and particularly Christoph Waltz, who makes a grand villain.

The dialogue is droll and snarky, with quite a few laughs coming from O’Dowd.

And yet...

Narratively, Epic is curiously flat and uninvolving: far less than the sum of parts that should have worked better than they do. The premise is contrived and scattershot, with bits begged, borrowed or stolen from other, superior fantasy sagas. Waltz’s scenery-chewing malevolence notwithstanding, there’s never a sense of genuine peril: no feeling that our heroes are in any real danger, or that they’ll fail to save the day in the manner foretold in the first act.

The storyline is based loosely on The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs, one of imaginative author/illustrator William Joyce’s many delectable children’s books. Actually, “loosely” still overstates the case; 20th Century Fox has gone out of its way to distance this film from Joyce’s book.

Frankly, all concerned might have done better to follow Joyce’s template more closely, since this script — credited to Tom J. Astle, Matt Ember, James V. Hart and Daniel Shere — is a derivative, disorganized mess. Characters too frequently seem to have been granted screen time — and dialogue — based on the popularity of the star providing the voice, as opposed to reasons relating to plot continuity.

That’s a bass-ackwards approach to filmmaking, and the awkward results are plain.

Seventeen-year-old Mary Katherine, who prefers to be called M.K. (voiced by Seyfried), returns to her childhood home after the death of her mother, hoping to re-connect with her estranged father, Bomba (Jason Sukeikis), who has buried himself in rather bizarre research. Bomba (weird name, that) has spent years seeking indisputable proof that a tiny civilization lives in the nearby forest, an obsession that has cost both his family and his professional career.

Although delighted to see his daughter again, Bomba hasn’t the faintest idea how to relate to her; he also can’t tear himself away from his work.

The irony, of course, is that Bomba is absolutely correct: The nearby woods do shelter an advanced race known as Leafmen, the forces of light who constantly battle dark creatures of decay known as Boggans, ruled by the rot-inducing Mandrake (Waltz). One touch of Mandrake’s magical staff, and healthy vegetation withers and dies. Aside from the Leafmen patrols that prevent incursions by random Boggans, Mandrake’s desire to decompose the entire realm is checked by the Eden-like powers of Queen Tara (Beyoncé).

But the time has come for Queen Tara to select an heir: a ritual that takes place only once every 100 years, during the convergence of a full moon and the summer solstice. A pod carefully selected from a special pond must bloom at that precise moment, in order to produce a new queen.

Mandrake, in turn, wishes to snatch the pod and force it to bloom in darkness, whereupon it will produce an evil prince who will plunge the realm into mold and putrefaction.

The brave and stalwart Leafmen, who ride tamed hummingbirds, are captained by the chisel-faced, battle-hardened Ronin (Farrell). In addition to his tactical concerns, Ronin is constantly frustrated by the undisciplined behavior of Nod (Hutcherson), a rebellious free spirit who behaves like a typically arrogant and self-centered teen. This pains Ronin deeply, because he long ago promised to look after Nod, after the boy’s father perished during a battle with Boggans.

The Ronin/Nod dynamic is totally clichéd and under-developed, with dialogue that could have been lifted from a TV soap opera.

Through a series of events that’ll raise eyebrows even under these circumstances, M.K. gets miniaturized — very Alice in Wonderland-ish — and charged with the all-important pod’s safekeeping. Cue flirtatious glances between her and Nod, who suddenly finds a reason to think beyond his own interests.

Again, though, this blossoming burst of young love develops along wholly predictable lines, with uninspired dialogue that does nothing to solidify their growing relationship. Indeed, M.K. has much more fun sparring verbally with Mub (Aziz Ansari), a slug who fancies himself quite the ladies’ man, his ick-inducing gelatinousness notwithstanding.

Although Mub and constant companion Grub (O’Dowd) — a snail — are responsible for nurturing the pod with their moist slime, they’re actually this story’s tag-team comic relief. They’re quite good at this function: good enough, in fact, that the film grinds to a halt whenever they’re not around. O’Dowd and Ansari deserve considerable credit for their comic timing, but this slippery duo also benefits from numerous sight gags, many related to their hilariously dexterous eyestalks.

Plenty of giggles also result from the disconnect between their feisty attitudes and their spineless anatomical limitations; as far as Mub and Grub are concerned, they’re the strongest, most resourceful warriors in Queen Tara’s land. Grub sees no reason why he can’t wear the armor of a Leafman warrior, and his plaintive wails — each time he’s left behind — get funnier as the story progresses.

Mandrake, meanwhile, delivers Shakespearean pronouncements of doom over in his realm of Wrathwood. Waltz chews up the scenery with style, conveying a sense that Mandrake positively delights in his own wickedness. On the other hand, we barely get a glimmer of Mandrake’s relationship with his equally nasty son, Dagda (Blake Anderson), a character you’d think would be significant, but who checks out so quickly — and unsatisfyingly — that I can’t help wondering if the screenwriters simply didn’t know what to do with him.

Contrast this with the buckets of screen time granted Nim Galuu, a woodsian elder statesman given to fortune-cookie bursts of wisdom ... that is, when he isn’t partying down. Credit that aspect of Nim’s personality to his voice being supplied by Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, which also explains why this satin jacket-garbed caterpillar bursts into this film’s only song: a jarring narrative disconnect that also brings the film to a grinding halt.

As seems the case with Beyoncé’s Queen Tara, Nim Galuu’s frequent appearances exist solely to further justify Tyler’s presence; his character simply doesn’t make sense in this story’s grander scheme ... but, then, it too often feels like this film’s scripters operated without a grander scheme of any kind.

Epic frequently resorts to a make-it-up-as-we-go approach to plotting, arbitrarily allowing characters — good and bad — to be as weak, or as strong, as is required for any given scene. That’s a deeply unsatisfying approach to fantasy.

Young viewers will enjoy this film for its colorful landscape and dynamic action scenes, and for the comic-relief chatter between Mub and Grub. Cinematographer Renato Falcão makes excellent use of the 3-D camerawork, which grants the Leafman/Boggan skirmishes a heady rush. Danny Elfman’s score is lively, although not his best work; I’m hard-pressed to remember any specific main or character themes.

At the end of the day, though, Epic simply doesn’t resonate. (Just in passing, that’s also a truly terrible title.) It doesn’t invite repeat viewing, and I doubt it’ll have much of a home-video afterlife. Wedge should have known better; you can’t make a good film from an inferior script.

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