Want to see what a bad promotional campaign can do to a good movie? Epic, a surprisingly enjoyable fantasy tale from the gang that made Ice Age, has effectively been hung out to dry by Fox. Its commercials and posters inform no one of what to expect: just the usual grab-bag of easily marketable characters who look good on Burger King cups. Considering the rapidly diminishing quality of the Ice Age franchise, we shouldn’t be looking for a lot here. That makes Epic’s overall quality that much more unexpected. It doesn’t do anything groundbreaking, but its attention to detail produces a reliably entertaining family adventure.
Part of its secret lies in playing things straight, relying on a few pratfalls and clever zingers for humor, but largely keeping things straightforward. We’ve seen its tale of good vs. evil before, but it invests its particular permutations with some real wonder, as well as a striking visual style that helps it establish itself. The short version? Fairies exist in the woods of upstate New York. The heroic Leafmen defend the kingdom of Queen Tara (voiced by Beyonce Knowles), representing growth, against the evil Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), who represents decay. Trouble comes when an important ceremony is interrupted, giving Mandrake a chance to take over. A wild card gets thrown into the mix when one of us big folk – a mourning teenager named M-K (voiced by Amanda Seyfried) – gets shrunk down via magic, joining the Leafmen in their battle.
It sounds like stock material and in most ways it is. Director Chris Wedge overcomes it first by adopting a surprisingly mature tone for his adventure. Though definitely family friendly, this doesn’t feel like it’s catered to eight-year-old sensibilities. It has the self-respect to treat its adventure as a serious endeavor, and to engage us fully instead of treating it as a joke. The Ice Age films lost that balance a long time ago, Wedge regains it here by inserting more subtle wit, then just letting the story do its thing.
Naturally, the fickle hand of studio interference appears now and again… notably in a snail and a slug (voiced by Chris O’Dowd and Aziz Ansari) who exist solely for comic relief. The actors kind of make it work, however, leaving Seyfried and her new Leafmen friends to carry the heavy dramatic load. There’s plenty of not-so-subtle messages about finding yourself, respecting your elders, looking at the world with different eyes, etc. But Epic knows how to flourish them properly, making them a part of the storyline instead of a tacked-on afterthought. Credit Wedge for treating the narrative development at least as seriously as he treats the world design.
Speaking of which, that’s where the film scores its biggest hits. The contrast between humanity’s big world and the Leafmen’s small one makes a feast for the development team, who pay equal attention to both halves of the equation. Many fairies in this world exist as living flowers, allowing them to blend into their surroundings perfectly. Wedge makes us believe that such a world could exist right in front of us without our knowledge, while rendering the elements of the human world both grotesque and strangely amusing. He’s also wise enough to stay away from politics, presenting his tale as a struggle between natural forces rather than another environmental message (which isn’t bad in and of itself, but has been done a tad to death).
The most frustrating thing about Epic is that its by-the-numbers qualities hide its good ones from the casual observer. The anemic ad campaign may doom it at the box office, a fate it doesn’t deserve. While Epic can’t reinvent the wheel, its surprisingly solid construction makes it a reliable early entry in the summer derby. Families in need of some respite can enjoy it together, without the harsher edges supplied by most teen-oriented popcorn flicks. Give it a chance if you’re of a mind. Like its protagonists, it has a knack for sneaking up on you.