Epic is an animated film by Blue Sky Studios that is loosely based on William Joyce’s book The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs (2013; 2001). The movie was created after a discussion between Joyce and the director, Chris Wedge, about how they should place a story in a detailed forest inhabited by something like fairies (Sarto, 2013). The movie took about eleven years to be made from the time of that discussion and involved a huge number of decisions. Because the movie was animated, the creators could control literally every detail about how movie finally looked, which is not the case with live action. Wedge states that can be a good thing but also something very difficult about creating animated films (Sarto, 2013). This review will discuss whether the eleven years spent making the movie Epic was successful. In particular, it will focus on whether the combination of story, character development, and visuals produced an entertaining feature film.
The story of Epic takes place in two worlds, that turn out to be the same one, but just not easily visible to each other because they exist at different speeds. The movie opens in the human world, with Mary Katherine (M.K., voiced by Amanda Seyfried) traveling to live with her father because of the death of her mother. Her father (Professor Bomba, voiced by Jason Sudeikis) has been long estranged from the family because of his obsessive focus on the existence of an unseen population of little people living in nature. This part of the story has some similarities to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. So the primary conflict in the human world is for father and daughter to find a way of related to each other again.
But in the process of trying to deal with this issue, M.K. magically is transformed into an inhabitant of the second world of the film, the world that Bomba had been obsessively studying and trying to convince others of its existence. In this way the story has some similarities to The Wizard of Oz. This second world is the world of nature but it is actually governed by the co-operation of unseen small fairy-like beings and animals. In this world a second important conflict is happening, the universal good vs. evil fight for the world. Leafmen, green soldier-fairies, work to continue life within the garden, and fight against the evil side, called Boggans, who are agents of decay and death. It is a time of transition from one Queen (Queen Tara, voiced by Beyoncé) to another so things are particularly difficult. It is into this struggle that M.K. is injected and she fights with the Leafmen to keep the life essence of the garden continuing. A large portion of the story is the adventures M.K. and the Leafmen have in overcoming the Boggans, including all the characters she meets and must befriend in the process of saving life within the nature world.
There are many opportunities within these two primary conflicts for character development. From the human side, both M.K. and Professor Bomba have to grow in order to be able to live together happily. With the proof of her father’s seemingly crazy beliefs and M.K.’s need to rise to the level of a hero to save the nature world, events drive her to change over the course of the movie. Bomba has a similar path, as he must learn that his daughter is no longer the little girl that he knew, but is a capable young woman that can play an important part in his life and work, not just someone to be taken care of. By the end of the movie, the two characters have made their compromises and have the chance to work together to convince the human world of the existence of the unseen nature world.
Within the nature world, the primary character that is developed is Nod (voiced by Josh Henderson). He is a young, brash and overbearing Leafman and refuses to work with his commander (Captain Ronin, voiced by Colin Ferrell) to effectively fight the forces of death and decay. He attempts to run away from his duties, but is later convinced to come back and become an effective soldier. His fighting as a team with Ronin at the end of the movie is what ultimately overcomes the Boggins and saves the life in the garden. Additionally, he becomes M.K.’s love interest within the story, and the movie closes with them still together despite them inhabiting completely separate worlds.
The visuals of this movie are one of its greatest strengths. As mentioned above, using animation to tell this story provides an enormous amount of control. Effective use of animation made it more convincing that there was a hidden natural world that most humans did not realize was there. It is also within the nature world that the highly detail-oriented animation style was the most effective. In every case, the backgrounds and foregrounds are very detailed with all the plants and some of the animals being highly realistic. This was particularly stunning in the “crowd” scenes within the nature world, where transitions between what humans normally see and what is “actually” happening occur, such as the revealed existence of the Leafmen. Watching the Leafmen transform from normal looking leaves to a small population of green-clad soldiers was a highlight of the movie.
The existence of the two worlds within one movie actually created a serious visual issue. Wedge said that having to visually pair the two worlds was difficult in that the animators had to keep the humans looking human enough in their world but allow for flexibility in the appearance of the animal characters (Sarto, 2013). If the animal characters were too realistic, having them be talking characters would not work. In the end, the visual compromises on both the human and nature side combine to provide two sets of characters similar enough to be part of the same world, yet having enough fantasy to allow the animals to talk convincingly.
The visuals of the movie are particularly successful if compared to the development of animation over the past decade. Because of the greatly increased availability in computing power and many developments in the field over that time, such as the ability to program realistic skin, hair, fur, and fabric have made animated movies much more convincing than before. It is also not just the appearance of the characters that have improved. There has also been very significant improvement in the way the characters move. This is at least in part because of the use of motion analysis, where sensors are put on live actors and they act out the scene while the computer records their movement. The animators to add realism to the way the characters move use with this record. These advances in the animation field are evident in visual effect of the movie Epic.
One of the less successful parts of the film was the soundtrack, by Danny Elfman. Although the soundtrack as background music was something not particularly notable, the film also contained one musical number. The one song was a song sung by the caterpillar character, Nim Galuu, and was appropriately voiced by Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler. The song did add comic relief and was interesting but because it was the only one within the storyline, it was awkward and the story may have been better served without it. Generally, makers of movies decide whether a particular project is a “musical” or not. This one seemed to take a middle road that was not effective. Additionally, given that Beyonce’s singing was utilized only over the end credits, the halfway decision is even more puzzling. This may be reflective of the long development process that involved many edits to get the movie to the right length (Sarto, 2013).
The final question is whether the story, character development, visuals, and soundtrack combine to provide an effective movie. The story is successful in that it provides important conflicts and has good character development. The reconciliation between M.K. and her father is touching and appropriate. The visuals are very successful in portraying particularly the nature world in a way that is very interesting to watch. Admittedly, the movie has many reminders to other movies and this does make it feel as if it is not entirely original. In the end, although there are many very successful parts of the film, the combination feels a bit flat, as if a lot of compromises had to be made in order to get a very large story to fit in the time given. This is particularly the case given the movie’s title – Epic. With a little more focus on the movie’s breakthrough developments, like the visual aspects of the story, and maybe fewer characters in the nature world to allow the story better focus, the movie could communicate in a cleaner way and be more successful.
Epic. Dir. Chris Wedge. Perf. (voice) Colin Ferrell, Josh Henderson, Beyoncé Knowles, Amanda Seyfried, Jason Sudeikis, Steven Tyler, and Christoph Waltz. Blue Sky Studios, 2013. Film.
Joyce, William. The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs. New York, NY: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2001. Print.
Sarto, D. “Chris Wedge and Bill Joyce Talk Epic.” Animation World Network. 24 May 2013. Web. 22 July 2013.