Epic is based on the children’s book The Leaf Men And The Brave Good Bugs, by William Joyce, who takes one of five writer credits on the film, and has past form in big budget family animation, having designed concept characters for Toy Story and A Bug’s Life. It’s a designer’s film, really – it looks great. The dark stuff is really dark – the hideous Boggins baddies are reminiscent of the childhood-scarring villains in Robin Jarvis’s excellent Deptford Mice series, garbed in the skins and skeletons of dead creatures which function as part-armour, part-trophy. And the ethereal life-of-the-forest stuff is really pretty, with flowers and wooded glades that look good enough to eat.
It’s a shame that a lot of the narrative is unpinned by some very traditional tropes. The Leafmen (who do seem to be mostly men, certainly the ones who speak are all male) are tasked with protecting the Queen (Beyonce Knowles), who, as a woman, is responsible for the life force of the forest. She’s a monarch, but in contrast to – say – The Lion King’s hereditary monarchy, this is an elective monarchy, with the Queen choosing her own successor. It’s not really any more democratic, but does add an element of suspense, a bit like when the Cardinals pick a Pope. At one point a small flower-girl asks her flower-mum if she can be queen one day – she is told “it doesn’t work that way”. It’s not quite “yes, you can achieve anything!” Even spunky heroine M.K’s (Amanda Seyfried) main moment of triumph can essentially be boiled down to managing to get a message through to a mighty man.
Ah well. It’s a children’s film – the underlying messages don’t matter, do they, so long as we have fun, so let’s stop taking it all so seriously! The talking snails really are very funny, with great voicework from Aziz Ansari (Parks & Recreation) and Chris O’Dowd (Bridemaids). And on a line-by-line basis, there’s some sharp dialogue in the script, with witty one-liners like “That’s not a house, that’s termites holding hands”. Christoph Waltz proves just as convincingly evil as he did in Inglourious Basterds, even when you can’t see his face, as main villain Mandrake, though it helps that the character looks so evil too. As in The Lord Of The Rings and countless other family classics, external appearances in Epic are always precisely in line with character – you look goofy, you’re funny, you look beautiful, you’re heroic, you look ugly, you’re evil – the 19th century “science” of physiognomy alive and well, there. Those looking for a (very) traditional fairytale for all the family need look no further for their summer entertainment.