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.
Instead of doing lots of individual, short news articles I figured I’d gather all the animation news and trailers from round the web that I find, and shove them into one article from time to time and add my opinion on it, too, so it isn’t exactly the same thing that you read everywhere else.
Here’s an exciting piece of news. The director of Aardman’s superb festive film Arthur Christmas wants to launch a new animation studio in the UK. According to this article by Den of Geek, Sarah Smith is looking into a CG animation studio for these fair isles to rival box office giants Pixar, Dreamworks and Sony. Smith says that “We have an amazing special effects industry here, who do very high end work at good prices. We have a lot of children’s literature. I think it’s possible to put it together, but it’s difficult, because it’s an ambitious thing to do in the UK, when much of the film industry is run on fairly small scale lines.” So it sounds like, at this stage, it’s still very much an idea and not an actuality, but I can’t help but be enthusiastic about this.
Britain has such a rich history of story tellers, and our children’s literature is, as Smith points out, a varied, imaginative canon, packed with great novels, plays and poems. The thought of merging these with animation, and getting some strong home grown talent behind it, is an exciting prospect indeed. As British genre cinema is becoming increasingly successful with directors like Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish and Ben Wheatley producing critically acclaimed films, it’s about time we got properly stuck into animated cinema, too. Aardman have been holding the fort for a long time, but any new input into British animation is most welcome. My only minor qualm is the suggestion that it will be entirely CG. It is an undoubtedly successful medium, and big studios are afraid of hand drawn animation or 2D box office flops. Yet I’m always far more excited by anything done in traditional animation, so I would love to see a mixture of mediums from this potential studio. As it is, it doesn’t exist yet, but I can’t wait to see what Smith does next.
Slightly overshadowed by behemoths such as Breaking Dawn and Skyfall, Dreamworks’ latest film Rise of the Guardians has had a modest opening box office. It’s the studio’s weakest opening weekend in years, but perhaps strong word of mouth and critical acclaim, plus the festive theme, will give it a better go at the box office in the run up to Christmas. I’m never really that fussed about Box Office figures, especially when terrible franchise entries earn over a billion worldwide, but it is surprising to see this not do so well. CG animations tend to bring in kids and, of course, parents, but perhaps they are all still going to see Wreck-It Ralph, which is still going strong in US cinemas. Regardless of how well it is doing at the box office, I can’t wait to see it this weekend when it hits the UK. Head over to www.boxofficemojo.com if you are into stats.
Finally, there’s a new trailer for Sony‘s Epic that’s been doing the rounds. I’m quite cynical about this studio, and if this film has a single song and dance routine, I’m going to be exceptionally annoyed; the talking ‘comedy’ slugs are a real worry. Yet, in spite of these concerns, Epic looks to be just that. It’s the kind of film I would have devised as a twelve year old, when I would use sticks as swords to fight my friends with, and I took up archery in my back garden. It looks wonderfully inventive, the animation is impressive, and it has the kind of fight scenes that past me (and present me, if I’m honest) would have gone absolutely nuts for. Just one thing, though: please stop casting Christoph Waltz in villain roles. He’s an immensely talented actor, he can do more than snarling German.