Epic

Epic

****

Reviewed by: David Graham

Something of a return to form for Blue Sky studios after the underwhelming Rio and some increasingly irritating sequels to the excellent Ice Age, this liberal adaptation of William Joyce's 1996 novel The Leaf Men And The Brave Good Bugs appears initially to be a kiddie-fied Avatar but it's actually got enough going on beneath its foliage to distinguish it from James Cameron's own epic. Sprinkling elements of The Spiderwick Chronicles and The Borrowers into the mix, director Chris Wedge has crafted a visually stunning and wonderfully immersive micro-verse that for once justifies the use of the third dimension, while there's enough rousing adventure and genuine heart to the story to keep kids of all ages enraptured for the duration.

Sullen teen MK has returned after many years to her father's messy mansion in the middle of the woods after losing her mother, but finds not much has changed. Professor Bomba is still obsessed with documenting the fairy kingdom he believes to lie in the neighbouring woods, and despite his outward affection, MK is clearly still a secondary concern. All this changes when she stumbles upon the aftermath of a disaster in the Leaf-people's tiny realm, and finds herself shrunk down to their size and embroiled in their war with the poisonous Boggans. Realising her father was right, MK must find a way to get his attention while helping the Leaf-people to defend their kingdom and the woods from the all-consuming decay the Boggins wreak.

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Epic immediately shows signs of being a bit more thoughtful than might have been expected; its heroine MK is a grieving late teen as opposed to the usual petulant adolescents, while the scattering of ethnicity through the leaf people ties in nicely with the simple and subtle message of connectivity and co-existence at the story's heart.

The early stretch strikes a nice balance between surprisingly mature human scenes and the soaring spectacle of the Leaf-people’s lives. The opening sequence is cribbed straight from Avatar, but with its smooth, long takes and visceral sense of peril it’s instantly edge-of-your-seat stuff (death unapologetically acts as a plot catalyst here and again ten minutes later – younger kids may need some explaining).

Thereafter we meet a despotic MK, having just lost her mother and en route to her estranged father’s remote and ramshackle house. The script walks a fine line between honest-to-god pathos and leavening humour, both sides of the equation ramped up following the awkward reunion through the introduction of a scene-stealing three-legged cyclops pug and some brilliant mise-en-scene (the detail fills in the backstory in as skilful a way as Pixar did with Wall-E’s first half hour).

Of course, the flips back to the chase-centric action in the undergrowth prevent things getting too mawkish; as in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, the fantasy world feels like it’s climaxing almost from the get-go, with a breathless sense of impetus that’s well-maintained throughout subsequent events. Despite being fundamentally derivative, the art design and animation are so stunning and imaginative in their own right that it’s impossible not to get lost in this tiny land’s travails, and the contrast between the greens and sunlight of the Leaf-people’s kingdom and the dusty greys and darkness of the Boggins’ domain highlights the amount of work that has gone into Epic’s world.

A couple of music superstars crop up in minor but nonetheless significant roles, and actually work very well; Beyonce and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith obviously have rich, distinctive voices but they put effort into their characterisation that keeps their contributions from becoming distracting. Josh Hutcherson makes for a suitably cocky hero, while Chris O'Dowd and Aziz Ansari offer great comic relief as a hilariously gloopy snail and slug double act (don't mix the two up or else!).

The voice acting plaudits really need to go to Amanda Seyfried, Colin Farrell and Jason Sudeikis though as our young heroine, the steely Ronin and the bumbling Professor Bomba respectively; all three inject warmth and humanity into roles that are more three-dimensional than is the norm for this kind of fare. Their interactions with each other provide an emotional backbone to the story that never tips over into sentimentality, making Epic a well-rounded experience for viewers of all ages. Christoph Waltz also makes for a suitably sneering villain, although his visual representation could perhaps have been more menacing.

Blue Sky still aren't going to steal Pixar's crown (despite this being a good deal better than recent misfires like Brave or Cars 2), and its familiar nature will take the sheen off the spectacle for some savvy viewers, but Epic is a ravishing visual treat the like of which hasn't been seen since Arrietty, and it has substance and emotion to spare. The ingenious deployment of some well-thought out physics in the second half only adds to both the comedy and the excitement, while the underlying environmental message is never screamed from the tree-tops. It's one of the best all-round family flicks in a while: it's funny, cute, thrilling and inventive, sometimes all at once. It might not stretch to a franchise, but if not this idiosyncratic adventure will only seem the more special.

Reviewed on: 21 May 2013
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A teenager shrunk to the size of the leaf people in her father's garden must fight evil forces to save the world.
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Amber Wilkinson ***

Director: Chris Wedge

Writer: James V Hart, Tom J Astle, Matt Ember, from the novel by William Joyce

Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Colin Farrell, Josh Hutcherson, Christoph Waltz, Beyoncé Knowles, Aziz Ansari, Chris O'Dowd, Steven Tyler

Year: 2013

Runtime: 102 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

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