Monday, May 27, 2013

Epic [2013]

MPAA (G)  CNS/USCCB (A-I) (2 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

I admit that I approached the children's animated film Epic [2013] (directed by Chris Wedge, screenplay by a veritable army - James V. Hart, William Joyce, Daniel Shere, Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember) somewhat skeptically.  I found the title of the film somewhat pretentious.  After all, how "epic" could a battle between little green "leaf men" and darker, cellulose-devouring "insect men" all playing out in a forest grove next to the house of the main human protagonists in the story be?  And then how many films does this setup to the story remind you of?  Let's see: Ants [1998], A Bug's Life [1998] and more recently The Secret World of Arrietty [2010] and Rango [2011].  (I'm told that the story also follows the essential plot-line of the Japanese Studio Ghibly animated classic Spirited Away [2001], which now I'm going to "have to see" as well ;-).  Then the flying battle scenes involving the green leaf-men saddled on hummingbirds and the beetle/insect-men saddled on bats and ravens, already shown in the film's previews, more or less obviously pay homage to Avatar [2009], all the more so since Epic is intended to be primarily seen in 3D.  So if nothing else, Epic's makers set themselves up for one heck challenge -- meeting a truly "epic" set of expectations ;-).

How do they do?  Well approaching this movie skeptically, I decided that I was not going to pay full-price to see this movie and then definitely not see it in 3D.  (Note to parents, having seen the movie now, while the film works perfectly well in 2D and I've always considered 3D to be largely a "price-gouging gimick," if you "get stuck" seeing this film in 3D, you could probably have done worse.  A lot of the scenes are crafted in a way that the 3D would probably look pretty cool.  But I do sympathize with you: paying $4/ticket per kid for the 3D glasses could well be a deal-breaker and the cheaper 2D (which I saw) works perfectly fine as well).

But returning to the question at hand, I found myself LIKING THIS FILM and actually QUITE A BIT ;-)  Then also, since I saw it as a matinee, it seemed rather clear to me that the kids watching the film along with their parents/guardians clearly enjoyed the film as well, responding to things in the film that I would not have caught (or found as funny ;-) otherwise.  But I'd generally get these 'added' gags (if sometimes a little "after the fact" ;-) saying to myself, "Okay, if I were a 4-6 year old, I probably would have found that funny too" ;-).  Specifically the human family's older "three legged dog" (which anyone who's ever had an older dog would appreciate) was JUST ADORABLE ;-) ;-).  What a reminder that you don't have to have a dog-show quality dog "with papers" at home to have a pooch more than worthy of your love.

Then for older kids and adults the fundamental set-up to the story told to us by the narrator at the beginning is immediately graspable: "If you look at a forest, it may seem initially that not much is going on.  But if you look more closely it becomes clear that there's a constant battle taking place between the forces of Life and the forces of Decay."  And there you have it.  Even without the "leaf-men" and personified beetles, dandelions, water lilies and snails/slugs, I will never look at a forest grove the same way again ;-).

So this "battle between Life and Decay" is taking place in the little forest grove by the house of the human family involved, and the father (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) had become absolutely obsessed with it convinced that there are "little people" on both sides of this struggle who were involved in it who we can not see only because their being smaller results in their experience to time being much, much faster than ours.  So over time, he's setup all kinds of microphones and security cams all over that little forest grove in an attempt to prove that all these "little people" running about (and battling each other) actually exist.

Well, any family or community that's had to deal with a middle aged man becoming seemingly obsessed with some crazy quest (like perhaps even dealing with a middle aged priest who decided a couple of years ago to "start writing a film blog" ;-) could probably relate.  And yes, taking obsessions "a bit too far" does have consequences.  In the case of the human family in this story, the father's obsession with proving the existence of these "little people" cost him his marriage.  His wife had left him, taking their daughter with her.  Indeed, the film begins with the daughter, Mary Katherine (voiced by Amanda Seyfried) who as a teenager now calls herself "M.K." for short, returning back to her father after the tragic death of her mother.  And yes, she was not looking forward to this as she was convinced that her dad was self-absorbed/crazy.  (As is now the formula that works in stories like this - the story is both entertaining/funny, but it is also rooted in some aspect of painful/relateable reality).

It turns out, of course, that the father is not altogether crazy.  (At least in the story) he's actually onto something.  There really are these little people in two camps (representing Life and Decay), who really are battling it out in the midst of that small grove of trees.

Now according to the story, each of these two camps is led by a leader, a Water Lily Queen named Tera (voiced by Beyoncé Knowles) and a Dark Lord named Mandrake (voiced by Christoph Waltz).  The two forces exist generally in equillibrium.  Whatever Mandrake's forces kill or reduce to decay, Queen Tera is able to regenerate.  However, once every 100 years or so, on the night of a summer solstice falling on the same day as a full moon, the Queen is obligated to go to the water lily patch and pick-out a pod that would bloom into her successor.  Mandrake and his forces see this as the opportunity for them to strike, steal the lily pod from the queen before the rising of the full moon and claim it for themselves (giving birth to a Dark Prince instead of a new Life Giving Princess). 

Well, good old M.K., who after coming to stay with her father had become even more convinced that her father was crazy, walks into the middle of this attempt by the "forces of decay" to steal this "lily pod" from the Queen Tera just after she picked it, and the pod ends up in M.K.'s hands.  Then to her amazement, she sees a dying little Lily Queen (Tera) on the ground, who tells her that she's entrusted to bring this pod, yet to bloom, "to the sanctuary" so that it would become the new Lily Queen.  As Queen Tera dies, M.K. magically shrinks to the size of these little people and soon encounters the Queen's guard that of course is distraught over this despicable attack on/murder of their Queen and the attempted abduction of her future successor.  Much, of course, ensues ...

And by the time that the Dark Lord Mandrake sends out a huge swarm of bats to "block out the light of the full moon" thus coming quite close to forcing the birth of the Queen's successor to "take place in darkness" (which would have resulted in the birth of a Dark Prince rather than a Princess of Life), I do have to admit that the story had become worthy of its "Epic" title ;-).

I also have to say that if all the talk of "solstices" and "full moons" may sound a bit, well, "pagan" ... the creators do such a good job with it by the end -- the pod about to be born is put on an appropriately "epic" stone altar recalling something from Celtic/Stone Henge times ... that I honestly did not mind. 

Indeed, the scene reminded me that one of the items on my "bucket list" is to one day to be able to go to England or Ireland to visit one of those old Celtic sanctuaries where light enters through a specific stone lined portal/window on the occasion of one or another of the solstices (and I'd happily "settle" on witnessing something similar among the Mayan ruins in Guatemala/Mexico).  To a priest of _any_ religion, this kind of stuff is simply really, really "epic" / "awesome" ;-)

So it should be clear then that the story became satisfactorily "Epic" / "awesome" for me.  And once again, I write this with some happy surprise ;-)  Further, I do believe that the film really had "something" for just about everybody from the little ones to teens to parents/elders.  And yes, be assured that daughter M.K. and dad reconcile and gain mutual respect for each other by the end.

So all in all folks, I really do believe that the film is quite good and (surprisingly) meets my expectations of a film bearing such an initially rather audacious name ;-)   Good, err "Epic" job folks ;-)  Good job ;-)

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