I’m getting tired of reviewing animated children’s films and saying “it’s not Pixar” — and it’s growing irrelevant, as Pixar’s last two outings were disappointing. Nonetheless, that run from Toy Story in ’95 to Toy Story 3 in 2010 — 15 years, 11 classic animated films with a nary a dud in the bunch — set the bar so high it’s impossible NOT to compare everything else to those films. “Epic” wants to be classic and grand, strives to be on a level with Pixar, but falls short. What’s interesting is where it falls short. It pretty much nails the epic scenes, the big action pieces. They are exciting and graceful, sometimes approaching breathless. And it looks great, no doubt about that. But “Epic” crumbles badly in the in-between scenes, the ones that make the action matter. The subtle gestures, the ticks of personality, aren’t there. The characters feel thin, like cardboard cutouts or on loan from a stock animation company. We have the gruff protector who struggles to express his love for anybody or anything. The reckless but talented young buck who butts heads with him, but does the right thing when the chips are down. The Abbott and Costello sidekicks (a slug and a snail.) The wise man who doesn’t know half as much as he pretends to and is kind of a slob, but once again, gets it done when everything’s on the line.
But the worst of the bunch is the villain. Christoph Waltz voices the character, and that ought to be a casting jackpot – Waltz was one of the most chilling villains of recent years in “Inglourious Basterds,” (as well as an equally chilling good guy in last year’s “Django Unchained”) but the writers and directors of “Epic” have no idea what to do with him. Frankly, I’m not sure Christoph Waltz is anything special outside of Tarantino’s writing and pacing. He excels gloriously in those slow, tortuously suspenseful, dialogue-heavy scenes that nobody but Tarantino seem to get right.
Actually, I felt a bit sorry for the bad guy, whose name is Mandrake. He’s the ruler of a kingdom of rot and decay, diametrically opposed to the kingdom of life and growth ruled by Queen Tara and her Leaf Men. Tara is voiced by Beyoncé, who, with her distinctive urban/ ghetto accent, seems like a weird choice for Queen of the Forest, but whatever. Early in the action, Mandrake’s oafish son is killed by a Leaf Man, and apparently reproduction is extremely difficult for tiny creatures of the forest, because Queen Tara has one chance in a hundred years to produce an heir, by picking a water-lily pod and making sure it blooms in the moonlight. So Mandrake decides to steal the pod, make sure it blooms in the dark, and thus claim the progeny as his own. So basically, the bad guy is just looking to replace his dead son. That’s not so terribly evil and villainous, is it?
The first half hour is annoying and laborious first dominated by clunky exposition and a terrible performance from Jason Sudeikis as the only big person who believes that Leaf Men exist. He is clumsy and dorky and hare-brained; basically Rick Moranis from “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” minus any of the charisma and cuteness Moranis brought to that role. But once all the exposition, and all the big people, are out of the way, “Epic” picks up steam and moves from painful to pleasing. That’s because the characters stop talking and start swooping around on hummingbirds and stuff. It looks good, it moves great, but it somehow lacks that sense of enchantment that it so desperately needs to really succeed. At one point (during the laborious first half hour) I found myself wishing they had just made little action figures, with their leaf outfits and saddled birds, and let the kids loose in the forest with them. A couple of 7 year olds could come up with a fresher, more exciting and intriguing story than the one on the screen.
I’m not sure the plot even makes sense — the more I try to write about it, the less I find I understand. To put it briefly, Seyfried gets shrunk down to leaf man size, the queen dies, the pod gets stolen, and a motley crew of adventurers set off on an epic quest to save the forest. Life lessons are learned, young folks fall in love, relationships are restored, and long-hidden emotions are finally expressed.
There’s just way too much going on here, leaving us little time to enjoy or explore the tiny world of the leaf men and their adversaries, or to feel like we know and care about the characters. Watching it, I got the feeling that the producers and animators spent the majority of their time and resources on the action scenes, and then hurriedly wrote and drew the scenes in between them. That’s not the way you tell an epic story. That’s the way you make a big, busy, beautiful but ultimately heartless and empty summer blockbuster. To put it succintly, “Epic” isn’t.
If you’re all excited about seeing an animated flick about tiny people, let me recommend a much better movie – last year’s overlooked and underrated “The Secret World of Arrietty,” from Studio Ghibli, creators of kids’ classics like “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Spirited Away.” “Arrietty’s” not quite up to that level, but it’s a much more carefully crafted tale, and captures the wonder and magic of being six inches tall in a world made for much bigger folks.