30 May 2013

LEAF ME ALONE

When you've gone right there, and titled your movie Epic, you've pretty much written your own death warrant. The word "epic", after all, connotes a certain gravity and scale that is almost certainly not going to be met by an animated family film. The word "epic", as a title, is also staggeringly boring and nondescript; William Joyce's picture book (which gave so very little to the end result that the onscreen credits merely cite that some of the characters were "inspired" from the source material) was called The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs, which is a hell of a mouthful, but it has a lot of personality. More than Epic, at least. But what doesn't have more personality than Epic? Thirdly, that title does not merely invited, it openly demands for reviewers to use the headline "Epic botch", or "Epic failure", or the like. We would not deign to use such a crummy pun in these parts, of course, but there are undoubtedly less-classy critics out there who lack our compunction.

So that's three strikes, and the poor little bastard of a movie hasn't even started yet. Nor does Epic much improve, or come even close to living up to its title, once the actual plot kicks in, with its grab bag of musty narrative tropes: teenager Mary "MK" Katherine (Amanda Seyfried) has recently lost her mother to an unspecified but premature form of death, and now has to move in with her wacky obsessive scientist dad (Jason Sudeikis), who is convinced that there is a race of 2" humanoids living in the forest and directing the cycle of life of plants and animals therein. MK dismisses this as the ravings of a lunatic, but the thing is, he's absolutely right: there is a race of tiny people led by the magical Queen Tara (Beyoncé Knowles) and protected by the leafmen, led by the queen's childhood friend Ronin (Colin Farrell), in their ages-long battle with the boggans, the forces of decay and rot. When the boggan leader Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) succeeds in killing Tara just after she's selected a magic seed pod that will carry the spirit of her successor, or some such, the queen is able to make as her final act shrinking MK down to leaf-person size, and entrusting her as the pod's guardian until the moon reaches full that night.

Then proceeds an hour and some of teeny-tiny fight scenes between the boggans and the leafmen, as well as the budding romance between MK and erstwhile leafman Nod (Josh Hutcherson), and comic relief molluscs, Mub the slug (Aziz Ansari) and Grub the snail (Chris O'Dowd). It writes itself, really, though I have to tip my hat to the five credited writers for breaking with tradition enough to make the lead character a girl, even if they do hedge their bets by giving her a love interest.

The problem isn't exactly that the film is predictable, but that its predictability takes on such... I want to call it, such a Blue Skyey tone. Everybody's third-favorite American computer animation studio has for years settled into a very bland, safe, sitcom-level groove, relying on odd celebrity casting to sell its movies, like a version of DreamWorks without as much wit, and gentle, shticky humor. One of the strangest, and not the most appealing, elements of Epic lies in watching the Blue Sky formula, which has to date been applied solely to comedies, find itself thrown at an adventure plot. The graft holds uncertainly at best, with the film never quite resolving how seriously it takes itself, and that extends not just to our attachment to the characters, but to the story the film is telling, and themes that grow out of it (this wants very badly to be an eco-parable, but it screws up almost immediately: "what matters is a balance between life and death", says the opening narration, "so here are the unrelentingly evil forces of death").

At least it's pretty. This is a mantra that one wields throughout Epic like a broadsword: At. Least. It's. Pretty. The rendering of a lush forest is never less than stunning, and while the character designs err on the side of being blocky and inflexible - most of the cast are yoked to just one emotion for most of the film - they fit in nicely with the texture of the backgrounds. The animation itself is awkward verging on dreadful in some moments: particularly in the beginning, the scenes with MK and her dad are freakishly bad, with limbs hovering above other limbs in an approximation of hugging, and flailing body parts in an approximation of acting. It's quite hideous; the film only reaches that nadir once or twice more, but there's never a single scene where you'd really stop and say, "wow, that movement of human-shaped beings felt natural to me and made me feel good about understanding and appreciating their personality in this moment". "GOOD GOD, WHAT'S WRONG WITH HIS FACE" more than a few times.

But still, it's pretty. I don't want to soft-pedal that, because the lighting, the design, the color, the imaginative way that plants are anthropomorphised: all of that is acutely pretty. And in any "shrinking person" narrative, a big part of the fun is in seeing normal objects made big and little objects made normal: that's as true of The Incredible Shrinking Man as of FernGully: The Last Rainforest, this film's single most obvious predecessor. So that works for the film; and the scene where MK has to maneuver through her dad's titanic-sized office is patently the most fun and inventive scene in the movie. So it all looks just great, as long as you consider the frames individually and not how they flow together. A pity that there wasn't a more dynamic story or more impressive artistry or funnier comedy or grander action to go alongside the pretty. But these are the people who made four different Ice Age pictures, so really anything is a step in the right direction.

5/10

2 comments:

Neil Fulwood said...

Ironic that the script relies most heavily for its slapstick humour on the physical awkwardness of MK's father - i.e. the one aspect of an otherwise visually enjoyable film where the standard of animation is at its worst.

Trish said...

Just caught this last night and came away thinking, "Alright, somebody saw 'Ferngully' and thought to themselves, how can we make this ugly as sin and also -remarkably- stupider?" Honestly, when the only person in your cast who seems to know what kind of movie he's in and has any fun with it is Steven effing Tyler, it's a sign that maybe it's time to pull a "Good Dinosaur" and reevaluate everything; maybe even have a nice long awkward talk with the director.

And yet, and yet, I can't bring myself to entirely give up on Blue Sky. Because they are The Major Animation Studio In New England, and refusing to bail on the home team is how I was raised, you see.