Chris Wedge first made a splash directing Ice Age 11 years ago, and while he has kept busy since then voicing Scrat the Squirrel through that movie’s numerous sequels, he has largely stayed out of the director’s chair. Epic is only his third movie as director, and from a purely visual standpoint it’s several steps beyond what he has done in the past. His evocation of abundant forest greenery rivals anything out of Pixar or Studio Ghibli. Unfortunately, he trips over pesky minor elements like story and character, so his animated movie turns out far less satisfying than it should.
The movie bears little resemblance to The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs, the William Joyce picture book that it’s adapted from. Mary Katherine, a.k.a. M.K. (voiced by Amanda Seyfried), is a surly teenager who in the wake of her mother’s death is sent to live in the countryside with her father (voiced by Jason Sudeikis), a dotty biologist who barely notices her because he’s so busy trying to prove the existence of an advanced race of tiny people living in the forest. M.K. gets concrete proof that her dad is right after she happens upon the dying queen of the forest (voiced by Beyoncé Knowles), who shrinks her down to a couple of inches tall and entrusts her with a magic flower bud that will ensure that the queen’s heir will live and protect the ecosystem.
We’re supposed to take this in through M.K.’s point of view, as she struggles to comprehend an alternate world filled with talking animals and hummingbird-riding soldiers called Leaf Men protecting the forest from bat-riding barbarians called Boggans. The five credited scriptwriters deal with this by clumsily dropping tons of unclear explanations on our heads and poorly introducing a bunch of characters who aren’t interesting once we get to know them, like the Leaf Men’s general (voiced by Colin Farrell) and the orphaned boy (voiced by Josh Hutcherson) whom he’s raising tetchily as a son. The Boggans and their leader Mandrake (voiced by Christoph Waltz) want to reduce the forest to rot because, I don’t know, they’re a bunch of meanies? The limp dialogue wastes an enviable voice cast, and the ad-libbing of Aziz Ansari and Chris O’Dowd (as a slug and a snail, respectively) can’t save the proceedings.
Whatever environmental message this movie might have gets shoved into the background amid the general pressure to turn this into a whiz-bang adventure for the little ones. Whatever happened to quiet contemplation of the wonders of nature? There are, in fact, animated kids’ movies that traffic in that sort of thing. (Most of them are Japanese, oddly enough.) In its too-rare moments of calm, Epic gives us a few wondrous computer-generated vistas that hint at the better movie that it could have been, one that merited its lush visuals. But then one of the characters starts to speak, and the spell is broken.
Voices by Amanda Seyfried, Josh Hutcherson, and Colin Farrell. Directed by Chris Wedge. Written by Tom J. Astle, Matt Ember, James V. Hart, William Joyce, and Daniel Shere, based on Joyce’s book. Rated PG.