Film Review: Epic

Animated adventure about a battle for the soul of a forest and a teenage girl's fight against grief makes this a multi-textural movie for all ages.

Its utterly generic and not particularly apt title aside, the animated Epic is one of the best features so far from Blue Sky Studios, producers of the pretty good Ice Age, its less-than-stellar sequels, and the so-so Rio and Robots. Maybe it's because this one centers on people rather than anthropomorphic animals and androids, with more recognizable and relatable emotions. Or maybe it's because children's author William Joyce, who provided only the characters and the story treatment for DreamWorks' disappointing Rise of the Guardians last year, took a more active role with this picture, based on a concept but virtually nothing else from his 2001 book The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs. Whatever it is, it worked: Epic hits serious emotional chords about death, childhood's end and family—and that's all before our heroine even meets the magical miniscule men and other creatures who protect the green forests.

Seventeen-year-old Mary Katherine (Amanda Seyfried), who goes by M.K., is moving in with her eccentric father, Prof. Bomba (Jason Sudeikis), following the death of her mother. His ramshackle house in a forgotten field 20 minutes outside New York reeks of hand-me-down home, and a clutter of clunky monitors and black-and-white video cameras speak of secondhand electronics, purchased cheap and broken and forced back into working order. It's not surprising there's little other than baloney in the refrigerator—Bomba seems broke but busy and happy in his own little world, searching for bug-sized humans he believes have left tiny helmets, saddles and spears behind, or maybe just acorn tops, a saddle-shaped fungus and splinters.

A grieving M.K. can't summon up a connection with this odd stranger, and she's preparing to call a cab and leave—to where, you wonder—when her childhood pet, the half-blind and three-legged pug Ozzie, disappears into the woods. Following him, she ironically finds the magical people for which her father searched. Stumbling across a once-in-a-hundred-years ceremony involving forest-protector Queen Tara (Beyoncé Knowles), M.K. shrinks to insect size. Taking it all in perhaps a bit too readily—the movie's only minor shortcoming—she quickly finds herself allied with Ronin (Colin Farrell), the stoic military commander of the Leafmen, and the brash young shirker Nod (Josh Hutcherson), whom Ronin is trying to mold into Nod's late father. The enemy—and a right natural one—is a force of rot and decay, manifest in a race of shark-like humanoids, the Boggans, led by Mandrake (Christoph Waltz). Abetting M.K. and company is a pair of comic-relief gastropods: Grub (Chris O’Dowd), a snail, and Mub (Aziz Ansari), a slug—and proud of it, too! An utterly assured ladies' man, er, mollusk, his full-on attitude makes the absurd little slimeball a breakout character you'd want to see again.

One reason it all works is that Joyce, who was also one of the production designers, helped craft a self-contained, internally logical ecosystem of tiny humans alongside people-like plants and animals, all of whose camouflage is so natural it's startling. He and his co-writers created a world that makes sense within the parameters they set—unlike with Rise of the Guardians, where powers and physical limitations were never clear. The story here never cheats.

All these things in themselves would have made a good, solid movie. What elevates it beyond that is a pervasive longing and a sense of regret as thick as fog—honest emotion, not just sentiment. And amazingly, there's no neatly tied bow at the end. A son goes MIA, his remains never found. A supporting character's dream, which in nearly every movie gets schematically fulfilled and checked off the list, doesn't come true. It's not that this PG-rated children's movie is going out of its way to make these curveballs obvious or dark—it's subtle and subtextual, offering a thematic richness in addition to this movie's surface treats. Epic remains too vague a title, but I guess Heartfelt and Imaginative Coming-of-Age Adventure with Emotional Density that Will Resonate and Stay with You just won't fit on a marquee.