The words "from the makers of Ice Age and Robots" and "starring the voices of Beyoncé, Pitbull and Steven Tyler" don't exactly inspire confidence in a summer animated release. In fact, based on the promotional materials for Blue Sky Studios' Epic, one would be forgiven for thinking the film was making a play for the tired, pop-culture-addled throne of Shrek, or perhaps positioning itself as a modern-day FernGully full of heavy-handed environmental grandstanding.
Those assumptions are, thankfully, very, very wrong. Epic is full of surprises—it's a sprawling, otherworldly adventure combining the best elements of The Wizard of Oz and Lord of the Rings into a surprisingly poignant fairy tale. A troubled teen girl (Amanda Seyfried) is magically reduced to the size of an insect, only to discover the flora and fauna are all living in an advanced society, guarded by tiny soldiers called Leafmen and under attack by an evil king (Christoph Waltz) who seeks to create a world of decay.
In terms of pure visual spectacle, Epic is a wonder. Under the watchful eye of production designer William Joyce—who also wrote the source book The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs—the film takes a small patch of forest and brings it to vibrant life. A tree stump becomes the dark castle from which an evil army plots world domination. A swamp becomes the site of a parade, with dragonflies filling the sky and the flowers serving as spectators. Tiny soldiers dogfight through the skies atop humming birds and bats.
Miraculously, none of this comes off as particularly cutesy. The film has all the trappings of a clichéd young-adult novel, from the heroine's family strife to the tired "discover your destiny" narrative arc. But Epic neither waters down its story nor panders to the kids in a cloying way. It has the scale of a true fantasy picture interjected with just the right amount of humor (mostly from Chris O'Dowd and Aziz Ansari's noble slugs) to satisfy.
Most impressive, though, is the sense of wonder that permeates Epic. With its eye-popping art and living forest aesthetic, it's only natural to compare the setting to James Cameron's Avatar. Yet Epic has more life in one frame than Cameron mustered in his entire film. It isn't perfect by any means, but Epic nonetheless nails a balance of heart and popcorn fun. And that it doesn't resort to a bunch of fart jokes or a sing-along between Beyoncé, Pitbull and the dude from Aerosmith truly sets it apart.
Critic's Grade: B
SEE IT: Epic is rated PG. It opens Friday at Eastport, Clackamas, Lloyd Center, Lloyd Mall, Pioneer Place, Bridgeport, Division, Tigard.