The Borrowers; The Wind in the Willows; The Poddington Peas: children have long been captivated by the idea that there is a world of adventure right outside our doorstep. In the leaves of the trees, in the rivers and in the undergrowth, there is life – often like ours – that has its own culture and history. This is our world, but there is so much more to it than we realise. It’s a beautiful idea, and one that Epic – the new film from Blue Sky Studios, previously responsible for Ice Age and Rio – seizes to create a story that tries to live up to that ambitious title.
Mary Katherine’s father (who, according to IMDb is called Bomba although you wouldn’t know it from the film) is a scientist who believes that there is a colony of tiny people living in the forest. M.K. is a bereaved teen trying to connect with her weirdo Dad, but thinks he is just a bit nuts. The Dad (or Bomba… are we really going to call him Bomba? Is that even a name?) is proved right, however, when M.K. is shrunk to join to the ‘Leaf Men’ and she gets caught up in a war against the Boggans – a race of verminous creatures who want to suck the life out of the forest. There’s also some talking slugs, a whole load of Daddy issues and Steve Tyler voices a caterpillar.
In that very plot description hangs both the highlights and the issues with a film that is constantly struggling to achieve greatness. On the one hand, it’s a brilliantly realised, often breathtaking adventure, but on the other it’s a facile, familiar story that is overly concerned with catering to the kids to truly leave an impact. There’s an adventurous spirit here that should appeal to children and imaginative grown ups alike, but very few people are likely to get too involved with yet another story of a father and daughter reconnecting.
A sequence early on shows the potential of what Epic could have been, as the Boggans stage an attack against a ceremony to choose the next ruler of the forest. The Leaf Men are on edge and wary of their enemies, but nothing can quite prepare them for the astonishing sight of thousands of Boggans bursting out from underneath the bark of a tree and launching a huge assault against the forest creatures. The action is spectacular, a good old fashioned battle with spears, bows and arrows, spiced up with a bit of magic. There are enough fast paced, thrilling set pieces to convince me that an animated adaptation of Brian Jacques’ Redwall books would be both feasible and incredible. The world of the Leaf Men is well realised, their hummingbird-mounted battles and eco-monarchy make for an appealing setting for adventure.
Sadly these thrilling moments are hampered by everything you have come to expect from sub-par American animation. A celebrity-riddled voice cast gives the film a tonal inconsistency – the leads are mostly fine, but in support there is Steve Tyler (who, yes, has a song and dance moment – something that should be banned totally from animations), Pitbull and Beyoncé (who is actually OK). There’s also some wildly uneven humour that seems to be lifted from another film in an attempt to appeal to a younger demographic. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a film child-friendly, but Studio Ghibli films have similar themes whilst still being loved by kids without resorting to comedy slugs. Finally, the worst crime is the insistence on making yet another animation about Daddy Issues. There are not one, but three Daddy Issue subplots in Epic. Seriously, Hollywood, get over it. Meet up with your Dads, talk it out. Stop trying for parental catharsis through cinema.
This is a film that has the potential for brilliance but wears its title tentatively: it certainly has moments that are Epic, but I don’t remember Homer and Milton ever having comedy invertebrate sidekicks or a voice cameos from Pitbull.