I’m genuinely eager to thumb through William Joyce’s picture book “The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs,” the credited source material for “Epic,” just to see how much in common the movie has with the 1996 text. That’s because the movie plays less like an original creation than the result of its (count ‘em) six screenwriters, including Joyce, dropping acid before partaking in a collective viewing marathon of “FernGully,” “Thumbelina,” “The Lion King,” “The Borrowers,” and “Honey I Shrunk the Kids,” then cobbling together a single rip-off.
This amalgamation of inspirations produces a story that is clunky and not entirely explicable. After the death of her mother, teenage girl M.K. (voice of Amanda Seyfried) is forced to live with her cooky, forest-bound scientist of a father (Jason Sudeikis), whose obsession with a mythical race of two-inch tall “leaf men” caused him to become estranged from the family. Turns out, the leaf men really exist, and when M.K. crosses paths with an important group of them, their dying queen (Beyoncé Knowles) magically shrinks her down to their size so she’ll be able to help warrior Ronin (unfortunately not Robert De Niro, but Colin Farrell) transport a plant pod that will soon sprout into the next queen. (How this scientifically works, given that the leaf men resemble humans, I dunno.) That is, unless the evil Boggans, a similarly miniature race of gargoyle-like creatures clearly based on the hyenas in “The Lion King,” who seek to take over the forest, can intercept the pod or otherwise prevent it from photosynthesizing.
Yeah, I don’t get it, either. But luckily, “Epic”’s convoluted narrative—flawed more likely due to too many writers working toward different visions than the aforementioned drug-addled scenario—is largely compensated for by solid filmmaking and lively voice acting.
Director Chris Wedge (“Ice Age,” “Robots”) nicely balances the ensemble of characters, which includes far more players than the above synopsis, such that everyone gets their moment, and executes the film’s multiple action scenes with clarity, but his wisest decision is allowing the visuals to function as the main attraction. While this microscopic, war-embroiled forest realm might not make much sense, it certainly is beautiful to look at. The animators’ colorful mixture of the natural world and fantasy components is immaculately detailed, with surface textures like tree-bark particularly striking. Furthermore, the sense of scale—especially important, since we’re dealing with very small characters—is well-realized, and is enhanced by the 3-D effects (just when you think stereoscopy is completely useless, a film successfully employs it). The character design itself is not as memorable—you could seamlessly drop both the humans and the leaf men into nearly any other computer animated release—but it’s serviceable.
The characters are all archetypes, as you’d expect of family-targeted fare, but the voice actors do a decent job at giving them spunk. Lead Seyfried has a naturally great voice—my spine tingles whenever she pronounces the word “Yeah” in that very Pennsylvania-accented way—and it’s put to good use here as M.K., the likable and ever-so-slightly rebellious young woman who’s learning to navigate the world (and its leaf men dominated underbelly) without her mother. Sudeikis has the compulsive scientist caricature down pat, but with a surprisingly tender, paternal interior. Farrell is appropriately soldierly, and Beyoncé is appropriately queenly, in spite of the studio’s shameless casting of her as the token (light) black character. Aziz Ansari and Chris O’Dowd disregard the fact that their respective slug and snail are Timon and Pumba knockoffs to conjure up some genuine laughs, as you’d expect of the funnymen. Christoph Waltz is, well, Christoph Waltz as the leader of the Boggans — and there are far worse things. Steven Tyler and Pitbull also lend their voices, and thankfully only the former sings. Josh Hutcherson of “Hunger Games” fame is perhaps the least interesting of the bunch, although all potentially interesting approaches to the love interest who knows he won’t be the love interest as soon as his girl inevitably returns to her natural size (approximately 32 times his own) are decidedly outside the bounds of a PG-rated movie.
Is “Epic” worth plunking down a Grant to take the whole family to see? Well, it’s as good as most of what DreamWorks Animation is putting out, like “The Croods” and last year’s other Joyce adaptation “Rise of the Guardians,” so if you felt those were worth the money, then this probably is too. But Blue Sky, the animation house behind the film, is going to have to pair with a more competent team of screenwriters before they can stage any serious challenge to industry leader Pixar. A more appropriate one-word title for “Epic” would have been “Fine.”