05/29/2013 06:21 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2013

Epic : Little Lessons and a Big Body Count


Epic would seem to have it all: high-speed chases for thrill-seekers and a love story for romantics, environmental themes for tree-huggers and enough battle scenes to make the NRA proud (even if the weapons are made of flora), plus an easy-to-follow plot for the kids, spiced up with occasionally risqué humor for the adults.

But it's the classic jack-of-all-trades model; in doing so many things serviceably, it excels at almost nothing. That doesn't make it unwatchable, just slightly wan. It's an entertaining enough romp for children not easily frightened, and probably the dream matinee of older kids who like their violence served up straight, but it's not a movie with enough originality or heart to make a lasting impression.

To boil it down to its simplest form, think of this as Fern Gully meets Braveheart. MK (voiced by Amanda Seyfried), a human girl previously unconcerned with saving the earth, is shrunk down to fairy size to help fight the battle between "the forces of life and decay." The good guys here are leaf people and the bad guys are boggans, termite-like "rot" creatures who want the world to devolve downward from its green beauty into grey putrescence.

The movie attempts to promote the idea that we're all in this together when it comes to protecting the environment. As chief leaf Ronin (Colin Farrell) puts it, "Many leaves, one tree." My daughter, who is a classic save-the-earth kid, ate that up, and she knew that the message was directed at the people in the audience. The story's plot further validates this idea of our responsibility, as leaf people must rely on both of the movie's human characters in the end.

But before you get too convinced that the film is some lefty parable, it should be noted that these gentle messages about the earth play second fiddle to the endless fighting between the forces of green and evil. This is a movie where attacks and counterattacks come often and increase in scope, with very few pauses for anything resembling playfulness. If you or your child liked Iron Man 3, the last half hour of which is one long daisy chain of explosions, this is your movie. Because Epic has established the entire future of the planet as its stakes, the film dispenses with any moral qualms about the scale of the killings, which are fairly continual. My Little Pony it's not.

If you have a child of color, the movie is equally at war with itself. My mixed-race daughter loves Beyoncé and was thrilled that the singer plays the seemingly major role of Queen Tara, leader of the leaf people. Moreover, the movie casually implies an interracial romance with the white Ronin. [SPOILER ALERT: READ NO FURTHER TO AVOID MAJOR PLOT POINT] Too bad, then, that the queen is killed 15 minutes into the film (though her holographic ghost gets a few lines later). It's reminiscent of The Frog Princess, in which Disney's first African-American princess is rendered green for almost her entire story. But that film, at least, offered an array of characters of color, visible at every turn, whereas Epic is a Caucasian sea, with literally thousands of white leaf warriors and boggans.

Where the movie excels is in animation that renders both worlds gorgeously. From the ethereal queen's parade to the well-realized horror show of tree bark erupting into boggan armies, the details are beautifully achieved and immersive. The action scenes make full use of the possibility of forests and one scene -- in which the minute characters ride atop a deer -- borders on magical. Even in 2-D, the craft involved in creating the universe of the story is clear.

Sadly, while the graphics may be precise and well-unified, the storytelling is a familiar hash. Throw all the tropes from children's movies of the last 50 years into single script and you have Epic (though this screenplay somehow required five people). The goofy animal sidekick requirement is here fulfilled by a snail and slug duo, voiced by Chris O'Dowd and Aziz Ansari, who get saddled with largely witless lines (that Ansari sells especially hard). The prerequisite dead parents are doled out equitably, one each to the male and female leads. A fairly random time-filler of a musical number is delivered by a quirky old caterpillar (Steven Tyler) who wouldn't have been out of place in an '80s Don Bluth film. And the big finish happens on a silvery Pride Rock knock-off, complete with a youngster taking on the mantle of the defeated ruler. I fully expected the slug to start singing "Circle of Life."

These are the qualms of a grown-up, one who might compare this film unfavorably to animated films of more originality and depth, but my daughter found Epic enjoyable from start to finish. She even thought that the strenuously sassy slug was funny. The part I liked best was the one thing this film has in common with all my favorite kid's movies: it was over in less than 90 minutes.

Review at a Glance:
Good for: Kids who like and are comfortable with action, those who enjoy intense and frequent fantasy violence, and viewers interested in light environmental themes.
Risky for: Very sensitive kids and kids upset by visual representations of violence.
See it for: Colorful and creative animation, though paired with bountiful plot clichés.
Talk about: What does "many leaves, one tree" mean to you? How can humans fight the "forces of decay"? What do you think of who lives and who dies in this film? Would this story have been different with less violence?