Epic (2D) (US - BD RA)
Gabe wants to make a Faith No More joke here, but is afraid no one will get it...
Following the death of her mother, a teenager named Mary Katherine, who prefers the designation M.K. (Amanda Seyfried), is sent to live with her estranged father, Professor Bomba (Jason Sudeikis). Bomba has spent his life studying the little humanoid soldiers he swears to have seen riding the local hummingbirds. In reality, there is a tiny war being waged between the forest-protecting ‘Leafmen’ and evil creatures called Boggans. Led by the evil Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), the Boggans attack a selection ceremony for the Leafman’s next ‘Queen of the Forest.’ During the ensuing battle, the current Queen, Tara (Beyoncé Knowles), reluctantly uses her powers to shrink M.K. (who happens to be passing by) and hand her the chosen royal pod for protection. Now, trapped in a microcosm world, M.K. and the pod are taken under the protection of Ronin (Colin Farrell), the Leafmen’s leader, and a wayward soldier named Nod (Josh Hutcherson).
As DreamWorks Animation continues to improve the quality of their output to the point that they’re beginning to regularly rival their biggest competition over at Pixar (whose quality dip has been blown out of proportion), Fox Animation subsidiary Blue Sky continues to occupy a spot at the bottom of the animation studio heap. Following four insanely popular yet insanely mediocre Ice Age films, two dull attempts at new franchises ( Robots and Rio), and one sweet-natured, almost good Dr. Seuss adaptation ( Horton Hears a Who), the red-headed stepchild of the American animation scene appeared poised to transcend their reputation with another original property, cryptically titled Epic. Epic’s original teaser trailers were flush with real potential. The images seemed to reveal a rich, immersive world that embraced the wonder of imagination. Then, longer trailers hit and it became clear that we could expect more of the same – an archetypical, hero’s journey-themed plot underscored by clownish characters making lame jokes. The only hope was that the strong imagery would exceed the studio’s usual problems with tone and story.
Director Chris Wedge has been a producer for just about every Blue Sky release, but hasn’t scored a directing credit since Robots failed to set the box office ablaze. William Joyce's children’s novel, The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs, was reportedly something of a passion project, one he even tried to take to Pixar when Fox wasn’t showing interest. Wedge has clearly grown as a filmmaker and developed a distinctive style, which is notably difficult for a director working in big-budget animation where the workload is divided among hundreds and hundreds of people. Epic is a generally more ambitious film than either Ice Age or Robots, though comparatively a bit disappointing on a pure design level (the director’s other films share a unique design sense, while most everything here is modeled on real-life). The visual grandeur promised by Epic’s trailers is delivered upon – it just isn’t particularly unique. On the other hand, Wedge blends comedy and drama much more gracefully than he has in the past (with the exception of the slugs, who fit the boorish, Blue Sky clown stereotypes) and his action set-pieces are expertly crafted; at times they’re even more breathtaking than their live-action equivalents. He doesn’t manage to elevate the material to the level of a Miyazaki film, but, he does earn some major ooos and ahhs by the climax, set alongside some truly heartfelt charms.
The screenplay is credited to six writers, assuming we include ‘story by’ credits, and is ambitious in terms of world-building. The effort is, unfortunately, too often lost in clichés and overplayed genre tropes (as if the generic title wasn’t a clue). The respectability of the story’s epic scale and sheer quantity of overlapping (mostly likable) characters is lost in the predictability of monomyth trappings, which robs the narrative of any surprises. Epic is throttled by unfortunate comparisons to other similarly-themed animated features, including Fern Gully, A Bug’s Life, and The Secret World of Arietty. It rarely even surpasses Disney’s much more modest little STV Tinker Bell films (specifically the third one, The Great Fairy Rescue). To be fair, the Tinker Bell series was a lot better than I think anyone anticipated, but it’s not as if they’re underrated classics – they’re merely serviceable, inoffensive means to sell Disney Fairy merchandise. Still, even with the burden of unoriginality, Epic is a more emotionally satisfying film than the one it is most regularly compared to – James Cameron’s Avatar. The voice cast is fine, I guess, but also a minor disappointment, because they’ve largely been hired for their star appeal as live-action actors. It has been proven time and time again that celebrity reconcilability does not automatically translate to valuable vocal performances – a fact that seems to have been lost on Fox/Blue Sky in particular over the years. Again, no one is particularly bad here (except Steven Tyler, who is cast as a wise caterpillar with a hippy’s disposition), but their all-star paychecks seem wasted on generalized voiced patterns that could’ve probably been filled by anyone with a shred of acting talent.
Have I complained enough lately about the tedious task of describing the image quality of a digitally-animated film on Blu-ray? Because it feels like it’s been a while. Epic is another entry in a long line of such films that look expectedly fantastic in 1080p, framed here at 2.40:1. Wedge and cinematographer Renato Falcão originally designed the film for a 3D release, so the front to back detail levels are made extremely complex for the sake of total visual immersion. Even in 2D, this intended immersion is felt via focus shifts that guide the eye throughout the micro world of the Leafmen. The film’s general look is faux-realistic. The characters have cartoonish physicalities, but generally normal proportions, and the animators take pains to recreate the look of the forested world their virtual cameras are exploring. The super-fine textures of this macro-sized version of the micro-sized world feature no notable compression artefacts, uptakes in digital noise, or noticeable sharpening effects, like edge haloes. Colour quality is vibrant and surprisingly delicate in terms of differentiations. The good guys are represented by a series of lush, natural hues (mostly greens and reds) and the bad guys are defined by darker shades (mostly blues and purples). In standard definition the differences between the colouration styles are plenty obvious, but the smaller distinctions between green shades are mostly lost, giving the HD transfer another big advantage in terms of dynamic depth.
Epic, which was mixed for Dolby Atmos sound system, comes fitted with a lively DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack. The dynamic ranges are deep and the stereo/surround enhancements are quite playful, blending the film’s naturalistic and cartoonish aural elements into a poppy and crystal clear stew. The centered dialogue is a smidge on the soft side compared to the more buoyant music and effects tracks, but never disappears entirely, even during the bigger, louder action scenes. The audio environment is punched up quite a bit when we’re experiencing the story on the Leafmen’s micro level and the simplest act of nature suddenly takes on massive aural heft. In contrast, the human world is flecked with smaller embellishments and a drier overall sound. This mix works best when these two worlds overlap, as in the opening sequence, where Professor Bomba chases the Leafmen’s birds through the forest. Sound also plays a big role in the Professor’s research. Of course, the big action set-pieces are the track’s most aggressive and perfectly overwhelming bits, complete with fluttering bird wings, screaming bats, whizzing arrows, and clanging swords that dive and weave throughout the channels. The surround speakers are also nicely exploited for the sake of comedy (the three-legged pug dog knocking something over off-camera, for example). Danny Elfman’s score is appropriately exciting and the music is appropriately warm and vigorous.
The extras begin with some educational featurettes for the tots. These include Birds, Bugs and Slugs: Forest Explorer (5:20, HD), a comparison between the film’s animal characters and their real world counterparts; Rot Rocks (3:20, HD), on the value of decomposition; Bugs of Camouflage (3:40, HD), concerning insect blending techniques; and The Epic Life At Two Inches Tall (3:40, HD), on the science of the ‘physics of being tiny.’
Up next are a series of behind-the-scenes featurettes under the Mysteries of Moonhaven Revealed title heading. These featurettes include a look at The World (4:00, HD), The Leafmen (5:50, HD), Queen Tara (3:40, HD), Mub and Grub (4:00, HD), Nim Galuu (2:30, HD), The Stompers (4:30, HD), and Finding Moonhaven (1:10, HD). Interview subjects include Wedge, producers Lori Forte, Michael J. Travers, and Jerry Davis, production designer Greg Couch, senior research associate Hugo M. Ayala, art director Michael Knapp, senior character technical director Sabine Heller, supervising animators Galen Tan Chu, David R. Sloss, Scott Carrol, Stewart Shaw, Jackie Tarascio, Lluis Llobera, Melvin Tsing Chern Tan, David Zach, James Young Jackson, Yuehchih Eric Lin, Matthew Doble, Joseph Antonuccio, and Jeff Gabor, and cast members Josh Hutcherson, Beyoncé Knowles, Aziz Ansari, Chris O'Dowd, and Amanda Seyfried. The extras end with a trailer and trailers for other Fox releases.
Epic is better than anticipated and even approaches real greatness by its spectacular climax. It may even be the best film ever released under the Fox/Blue Sky banner. Only its trope and cliché-driven narrative structure holds it back from competing alongside Pixar and DreamWorks on a creative level. Still, this is recommend viewing for animation fans with slightly older kids that may be bored by the less action-oriented, family-friendly features. This 2D Blu-ray looks and sounds about as close to perfect as we can expect from the format, while the extras are, unfortunately, a little on the fluffy side.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 20th August 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, French, Portuguese, Croatian, Czech, Slovak, Slovenian, and Turkish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Croatian, Czech, Slovak, Slovenian, Turkish
Extras: Birds, Bugs and Slugs: Forest Explorer, Rot Rocks, Bugs of Camouflage, The Epic Life At Two Inches Tall, Mysteries of Moonhaven Revealed, Trailers, DVD Copy, UltraViolet Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Chris Wedge
Cast: Amanda Seyfried, Josh Hutcherson, Colin Farrell, Christoph Waltz, Aziz Ansari, Chris O'Dowd, Pitbull, Jason Sudeikis, Steven Tyler, Beyoncé Knowles
Genre: Action, Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family and Fantasy
Length: 102 minutes
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