Skip to main content

I’m going to destroy the forest. But I’m only going to do it once, so try to pay attention.

Epic
(2013)

The second adaptation of a William Joyce book in as many years (The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs), Epic’s eco-fable in miniature has considerable merit. It is structurally more satisfying than Joyce’s fairy-tale-characters-super-team Rise of the Guardians (that movie wastes its high concept premise). Yet it suffers from an inability to trust in its more distinctive (better) ideas. The production team clearly felt it necessary to punch up the proceedings with standard animation plot devices and supporting characters, which cumulatively neuter the movie as a whole.


Maybe they were right; maybe the idea wasn’t sufficiently “exciting”. Epic didn’t do a whole lot of business in comparison to the more popular Pixar and DreamWorks animation brands (although the latter met with double disappointments over the last 12 months; both Rise of the Guardians and Turbo significantly underperformed). Blue Sky Studios, the animation house behind Epic, is owned by 20th Century Fox (who, somewhat greedily, also struck a distribution deal with DreamWorks this year) and has seen extraordinary success with the Ice Age franchise. Their other pictures have been less prolific; Rio was a reasonable performer but, as with all their pictures, it did considerably better internationally than in the States. Chris Wedge, VP of Blue Sky, is a multi-tasking producer, writer, and even actor (he voices Scrat in the Ice Age films) but Epic is his first directing effort since 2005’s Robots.


And it shows similar signs of Robots’ rocky road of development, banging a less standard idea into a more homogenous shape. Wedge himself admitted he was pushing readily identifiable touchstones on a young audience attuned to a diet of sequels and anthropomorphic sidekicks when he referred to Joyce’s story as “quaint” and said they had turned it into a “gigantic action adventure”. Presumably this was with Joyce’s full endorsement, since he is one of the six credited writers (his involvement in the movie world extends as far back as Toy Story).


Joyce and Wedge earlier collaborated on Robots, making it even more likely that he is sanguine over the financial necessities of distorting a text from its original shape. The most notable name on the writers’ list is James V. Hart, whose career (mostly literary adaptations) has taken in highs such as Contact and The Last Mimzy and lows including Hook and the second Tomb Raider. Perhaps he was called on to take a pass at the tale’s message (since it is more-often-than-not a pre-eminent feature of his scripts) while Tom J Astle and Matt Ember handled the slapstick and sight gags.


Either way, one gets the impression there was the potential to envisage an environment as potent as, say, The Dark Crystal. Joyce’s take on the natural world is one of a struggle between decay and growth as personified by the frightful Boggans and the goodly Leafmen. It’s a premise pregnant with philosophical potential. But then we discover that the wise queen of the Leafmen is voiced by Beyoncé Knowles, who also contributes a song to the soundtrack. It’s one of numerous examples of Blue Sky attempting to copy the marketing of their peers but lacking the slickness to fully deliver.


The queen picks her heir from a selection of unimbued leaf pods, but dies during an attack by the Boggans. She passes on the responsibility of seeing the pod to bloom to a human girl named C.K. (Amanda Siegfried), who is miraculously shrunk to insect size in the process. Should the pod flower in darkness, it will become a tool of destruction.


It’s hard to say if the half dozen writers have the Boggans in mind as representations of the evils of industrialisation, since their destructiveness appears simply one of rot and detritus. As such, one might expect a recognition somewhere of the need for balance between the two opposing forces (creation and entropy). If it’s there, it’s rather lost. As others have pointed out, the finished article is too derivative of other pictures, both in design and content (who could say that of The Dark Crystal, for all its faults?) There’s the jungle/forest idyll under threat (Ferngully: The Last Rainforest) and the (diminutive) people attuned to their natural environment (Avatar) who invite an outsider in, the key to their salvation (Avatar). Less aspirationally, the shrunken daughter and the goofy father/inventor are a direct lift from Honey I Shrunk the Kids. Throw in such stock tropes as the rebellious teenager, a couple of comic sidekicks (a slug and a snail), action-friendly set pieces (there’s an undisguised borrowing of The Phantom Menace’s pod race) and you get a movie whose personality has been focus-grouped into submission.


So it’s fortunate for Wedge then, that the picture is structurally quite tight. Heavy weather is made of the grieving human family in the early stages (C.K. has lost her mother, her father is lost in his work), but once she has been shrunk (in a visually clever sequence that allows the viewer to travel with C.K., only realising that she has reduced in size as the process ends) Epic begins to hit its marks and eventually brings back the dotty father (whose life’s mission has been to confirm the existence of the Leafmen) to help win the day.


The writing team weave some interesting ideas into the mix, in respect of both nature religions (the importance of the full moon and solstice are stressed as a means for the queen’s heir to reach germination) and whacky science (M.K.’s father believes humans look big and dumb and slow to a fly because each exists in a different dimension). But a strong theme such as the interconnectedness of things takes on all the profundity of a glib moral when filtered through the studio cookie cutter (“No one is alone”). There is the occasional moment you can’t imagine a Pixar picture permitting. For one thing, the tone is generally darker (most likely the reason for the overkill comic relief), but Wedge is also willing to roll with an anti-intuitive sequence such as the one where a cute little mouse revealed as a blood-curdling monster (there’s an amusingly morbid gag about the life cycle of a fruit fly too).


The voice cast is typically bloated with star names, although in this case they tend not to draw attention to themselves (Beyonce and Chris O’Dowd aside). Colin Farrell is solid as the elder warrior, although Christoph Walz’s Mandrake is an unexceptional villain. Steve Tyler plays a “wise” glowworm. Naturally, he also contributes to the soundtrack. This is one of those movies of selective anthropomorphism; most of the characters are flora and fauna of the forest kingdom. There are talking plant people and madcap molluscs. Yet there are also dogs and birds and mice and deer that are just plain old creatures of instinct (it’s the Mickey Mouse/Pluto thing all over again).


In some ways attempts by the lesser (as in, not the Big Two) animation houses to follow the success plan of the finely honed majors are all the more infuriating. The CGI-animated market place is well and truly a glut, but it appears to be dictating less, not more, variety. With Epic it’s the characters that suffer; they’re either unmemorable or over-familiar and you can be sure they’ve intentionally had any edges removed. Maybe Blue Sky is correct to think that way; maybe the kiddies wouldn’t want to see a version of Epic without talking slugs and snappy colloquialisms. It’s the same with the instant familiarity of the design work; the forest vistas are impressive, as are the uses of perspective between the macro and microenvironments, but there’s no personality to the character work. William Joyce appears adept at coming up with arresting ideas, so much so that its incumbent on those thinking about the bottom line to make sure they aren’t too arresting, too atypical, too disdainful of formula.


***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

Basically, you’re saying marriage is just a way of getting out of an embarrassing pause in conversation?

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
(SPOILERS) There can be a cumulative effect from revisiting a movie where one glaring element does not fit, however well-judged or integrated everything else is; the error is only magnified, and seems even more of a miscalculation. With Groundhog Day, there’s a workaround to the romance not working, which is that the central conceit of reliving your day works like a charm and the love story is ultimately inessential to the picture’s success. In the case of Four Weddings and a Funeral, if the romance doesn’t work… Well, you’ve still got three other weddings, and you’ve got a funeral. But our hero’s entire purpose is to find that perfect match, and what he winds up with is Andie McDowell. One can’t help thinking he’d have been better off with Duck Face (Anna Chancellor).

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Only an idiot sees the simple beauty of life.

Forrest Gump (1994)
(SPOILERS) There was a time when I’d have made a case for, if not greatness, then Forrest Gump’s unjust dismissal from conversations regarding its merits. To an extent, I still would. Just not nearly so fervently. There’s simply too much going on in the picture to conclude that the manner in which it has generally been received is the end of the story. Tarantino, magnanimous in the face of Oscar defeat, wasn’t entirely wrong when he suggested to Robert Zemeckis that his was a, effectively, subversive movie. Its problem, however, is that it wants to have its cake and eat it.

Do not mention the Tiptoe Man ever again.

Glass (2019)
(SPOILERS) If nothing else, one has to admire M Night Shyamalan’s willingness to plough ahead regardless with his straight-faced storytelling, taking him into areas that encourage outright rejection or merciless ridicule, with all the concomitant charges of hubris. Reactions to Glass have been mixed at best, but mostly more characteristic of the period he plummeted from his must-see, twist-master pedestal (during the period of The Village and The Happening), which is to say quite scornful. And yet, this is very clearly the story he wanted to tell, so if he undercuts audience expectations and leaves them dissatisfied, it’s most definitely not a result of miscalculation on his part. For my part, while I’d been prepared for a disappointment on the basis of the critical response, I came away very much enjoying the movie, by and large.