By Preston Wilder
What’s wrong with Epic? I don’t know. Maybe nothing. Other recent cartoons have been funnier, like Hotel Transylvania – by ‘cartoons’ I mean the 3D behemoths unleashed by Hollywood on an unsuspecting world, not (for instance) the often-exquisite Japanese anime made by Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli – but few recent cartoons have managed such a deft combination of adventure, romance and comedy. Generations from now, film fans will scratch their heads at the collective shrug it seems to have elicited (it wasn’t a very big hit, either), just as we scratch our heads at the cool reception given to a fine but lesser-known 50s Western like, say, Bend of the River.
The reasons, in both cases, are similar. Bend of the River came out at a time when Westerns were everywhere, from Oscar winners like High Noon to dozens of B-Westerns, so its excellence was largely ignored. Epic, too, may have suffered from a glut of cartoons – though admittedly it’s solid rather than excellent, and admittedly cartoons have a special problem not faced by Westerns in the 50s. Hollywood cartoons are living a lie, the lie being that they’re aimed at kids but pretend to be films ‘for the whole family’. That’s why they’ll often alternate kiddie moments with sophisticated references for adult chaperones – and that’s why critics will often praise cartoons for being edgy (see, for instance, Rango) when in fact that edginess may be inappropriate for the target audience.
Epic isn’t edgy, which may have added to its woes. This is kids’ material through and through, without even the revisionist tinge of last year’s Rise of the Guardians (based on a book by the same author, William Joyce) – a rousing tale of Good vs. Evil, represented by the Leafmen and Boggans respectively. There’s a bit of The Borrowers in the tale of a girl who finds little people in her house, actually the forest next door (another influence may be the Disney classic Darby O’Gill and the Little People, which would explain why the Leafmen sport Irish brogues). There’s a bit of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids in the fumbling scientist dad and the notion of our heroine Mary Katherine (known as M.K.) shrunk to micro-size. There’s the usual cartoon convention of funny animals – in this case Grub and Mub, a snail and a slug – as comic relief. Not much there for grown-ups, unless you count the Gaia-like (or Avatar-like) code of the forest: “Many leaves, one tree. We’re all connected!”.
To be honest, I was vaguely bored for the first 20 minutes of Epic. It seemed fun but generic, the only spark coming from M.K.’s relationship with her beaky, weak-jawed father. But the film works a certain magic as it goes on – not because it’s different, necessarily, but because it does familiar things well.
The forest visuals are predictably pretty. The action scenes are smart, especially a breathless half-comic chase in Dad’s lab with our miniature heroes pursued by a three-legged dog. The jokes are more amusing than in Ice Age (where director Chris Wedge made his name), especially the throwaways like a frightened dandelion being told by a fellow flower to “Get hold of yourself!” and shaken hard, so her florets go flying. A tiny gag about the short lifespan of a fruit-fly manages to be funny and a wee bit profound, and I’m also heartened to see not a single fart joke (the same was true of The Croods, leading me to wonder if cartoons are consciously making their childish side less juvenile even as they make the adult side less edgy). The snail and slug aren’t too annoying (they like the word ‘moist’), and I smiled when Grub sidles up to Leafman warrior Ronin, he of the sculpted face and clenched jaw: “Big fan. Love what you do with your jaw. [Ronin clenches jaw] Yes, that!”.
Well, I did say it was a kids’ movie – and maybe cartoons have now reached the point where they no longer feel the need to ‘prove’ themselves beyond the target audience. Snarky cartoons are still being made, of course – Wreck-It Ralph had a rambunctious arcade-gamer’s Attitude – but, for instance, the last two Pixar productions (Cars 2 and Brave) saw a major step back in sophistication from Toy Story 3, which may indeed have been too complex for little kids. Epic isn’t aimed at the under-8s, per se; the Boggans are scary, and M.K. is a tech-savvy teenager (an iPod saves the day, and the coda shows her having Skype-like conversations with her forest friends) – yet it’s an unusually ‘pure’ cartoon, unable (or unwilling) to goose jaded critics who’ve lost touch with their inner child. Here’s a well-balanced, satisfying film that your children will love, and there’s not much more one can say about it. What’s wrong with Epic? Maybe it’s just not very epic.
DIRECTED BY Chris Wedge
WITH THE VOICES OF Amanda Seyfried, Josh Hutcherson, Colin Farrell
US 2013 102 mins