Thursday, 13 June 2013

Epic Review

I made a fuss and got quite excited when Wreck-It Wralph came out because, maybe for the first time, the big three animation studios had all, in the same year, put out great family films rather than just kids films. We're riding a wave of maturity and understanding that hasn't always been there in recent years. I wondered at the time if Blue Sky Studios, who haven't made a true family film since their first - the better-than-you-remember Ice Age - would continue this trend, since they seemed to be marketing Epic to an older audience than Robots, Rio, or the never-ending string of Ice Age sequels.
While not quite as mature or complex as the big three's films, I'm happy to report that there's more than enough depth to Epic to engage adults as well as kids. What I'm not happy to report is that no-one is actually treating it that way.

We saw Epic much later than we hoped or intended because all the local cinemas limited it to two showings a day (one in 2D, one in 3), and then almost immediately dropped down to just one because no-one was seeing it. Why was no-one seeing it? Because all the showings were at three and four o'clock in the afternoon! When we did finally see it, it was a weekend matinee on the last day of showing - a mere two weeks after release.
We've heard this song before: the same thing happened with Rise of the Guardians. That time it annoyed me, but now I'm just depressed. Maybe it's just that they both have pathetically generic titles, but it seems to go deeper than that - despite being accessible and entertaining to a wider audience than usual, these films got pushed into time-slots aimed solely at toddlers and young kids. Dreamworks and Blue Sky are taking risks - making more-original, less-juvenile, weightier films and stepping outside their Madagascar/Ice Age kid-friendly-franchise-milking model - and in return they get marginalised to a point where the films cannot and will not make money. The lesson they'll take from that is not to take these kinds of risks and to rely even more heavily on diluted sequels, while their interesting, risky projects get forgotten. Urgh - it's really bothered me, because both Guardians and Epic deserve better than that.

Epic itself is a deceptively simple film. It's a basic quest structure with all the standard beats you might expect, as the heroes and villains vie for control of a flower-pod MacGuffin. It centres around MK, a teenage girl with a very teenage name, moving in with her estranged father - an eccentric scientist who believes there are tiny people living in the woods. Naturally, she doesn't believe him until, naturally, she gets sucked down into an adventure both bigger and smaller than herself. The noble Leafmen of the forest must fight the orc-like forces of rot and decay; there's a stoic soldier, a rebellious outcast, a wise old man, a magical queen, and even a prophesy. It's all very familiar.
What sets Epic apart from its obvious comparisons is the nuance of the characters and relationships. Every character, including the villain, is deep and real, and they complement each other in surprising ways. Pretty much everyone in the movie has recently lost someone - a mother, a father, a lover, a son - and there are no fewer than three fractured father/child relationships. Incredibly, all of those are different enough, and handled well enough, that it never feels too contrived or melodramatic - it's underplayed but it still feels poignant. Even the comic-relief duo get a small emotional arc (well, one of them does) and, despite their potential to be incredibly annoying, these two have an odd-couple act that's actually kind of endearing.

As strong as the characters and relationships are, what really makes this all work is the visuals. This film is stupidly pretty. It's so pretty that it's almost distracting - it's easy to get lost in the images. There's a beautiful scene on a lilly pond, and an incredible memory sequence built out of swirling dust-motes, that are kind of breathtaking. The forest is wonderfully realised and alive, and the design-work - the Leafmen's grass armour and hummingbird saddles - is excellent. Even the battles (and there are many) are great-looking, with seas of evil Boggans exploding from the bark of trees and rotting through leaves and plants in a destructive wave, clashing with Leafmen in well-staged fights both in the air and on the ground. "Epic" is still a stupid title, but those fights genuinely earn it.
Oh, and the 3D's fantastic.

Epic may not do anything new, but what it does do it does very well. For all its familiarity, I really enjoyed seeing a simple story told well and presented so stunningly. I've just checked, and there actually are still a couple of midday showings this weekend, so you might even be able to enjoy it too! If you hurry. Maybe.