Friday, May 31, 2013

Adventure Time

It's been two months since The Croods sauntered into theaters and became the first major children's hit of 2013 (Escape From Planet Earth might have technically been first, but just try and find somebody who actually remembers it). Now, just as the Dreamworks picture's theatrical run is just about wound down, who do you expect to pick up the slack? It's not Pixar, or Sony Animation, and certainly not Aardman. So who takes the reigns of children's animated theatrical showings now? Well, it's the blandly-named Epic, coming to us from Greenwich, Connecticut's own Blue Sky Studios (the makers of Rio and the Ice Age franchise). While animated movies that feature mainly action and adventure don't often do that well at the box office (Blue Sky's parent company 20'th Century Fox found that out the hard way thirteen years ago with Titan A.E.), Epic still had a couple of things going for it this past weekend. One - as I said - is that with the Croods effectively out of the way, the family film has no serious competition until the end of June. The second is director Chris Wedge, whose experience perhaps is not all that extensive (in this millennium he has only directed the first Ice Age and Robots), but he's still a talented filmmaker who can deliver impressive results. Sure, his name will never be featured among the likes of modern animation legends like Lee Unkrich or Brad Bird, but if he's going to make a movie, It doesn't hurt to take a look.
My, what a long neck you have...
M.K. (Amanda Seyfried) is a normal teen who moves in with her father Professer Bomba (Jason Sudeikis) after the death of her mother. Professor Bomba is an eccentric, constantly searching the forest to try and find evidence of a small, advanced society whose existence keeps nature alive and the forces of evil and decay in check. While M.K. scoffs at these theories, Bomba is in fact correct, as a war has long been raged between the destructive Boggans and their leader Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) and the noble Leafmen, led in battle by the noble Ronin (Colin Farrell) and ruled by the good Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles). But the time is coming to name an heir, and an accident finds the skeptic M.K. shrunk down and joining the Leafmen in helping keep the balance in the forest, as Mandrake and his followers push to make the forest theirs once and for all.
The Three Amigos!
Epic has all the makings of a second-tier animated film, and it's not just because it comes to us from a second-tier production studio... actually, that might be the reason, so why don't I just move on? The animation is actually quite crisp... when the characters you're supposed to focus on are right in front of you. Character models are well-animated, with fluid movements, and look like they might have come off of the Disney or Pixar lots. The backgrounds as well are quite lovely, the lushness of the forest and the dark, Burton-esque bleakness of the Boggans' territory beautiful to behold. But when the "camera" pans back and we see characters moving at a distance, it's obvious where the animation budget was cut. Background characters or main characters moving at a distance appear to have jerky, simplified movements, completely distracting you from the rest of the world and marking the low-point of 3D animation. It pulls you out of the movie, and when the animation is this good, that's a shame.
Yes, he uses that sword. It's pretty awesome.
The story is another point of contention, not in that it's bad but in that the heroine-transforming, nature-saving tale it weaves cribs from bigger, oftentimes better fare. Obvious comparisons are James Cameron's Avatar and Fox's animated FernGully: The Last Rainforest, but the film also borrows heavily from epic adventures such as Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz with impunity. In fact, Josh Hutcherson's young Leafman Nod is almost an exact copy of Han Solo, right down to owing money to a crime lord. The characters are certainly a problem, as most of the talented cast can bring nothing new beyond the archetypes they are shoehorned into. They do the best they can, though some (such as Chris O'Dowd's snail who openly pines to join the Leafmen) are better than others (I'm looking at you, Aziz Ansari). Most of them, especially Seyfried and Waltz, manage do a great job regardless of the material. Still, there are a few question marks among the cast, most notably why they cast so many musicians in support roles. I mean, I get that Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler does the film's one (albeit truncated) musical number, and Beyonce of course provides a track for the closing credits (while doing a decent job acting-wise). But how did rapper Pitbull get in here? Especially when he couldn't even handle the half-dozen lines he was given? Was he supposed to provide something musically too? And if he did, what happened to it?
Christoph Waltz has never looked better!
But while there's absolutely nothing top-notch about Blue Sky's latest effort, it does enough, well enough, and prettily enough to be entertaining for families with nothing better to do. The story itself does solidly enough, and even picks up in the last act to provide sufficient entertainment for all ages. Throughout it is sweet and elaborate with it's message without getting too preachy for its own good, proof that the filmmakers didn't try to do too much with their decent idea. It's a shame that most people will forget completely about Epic  before long, as there's just nothing really memorable about the sub-two hours you spend in the theater. It's certainly good enough to take your kids to on a hot summer day as you await the arrival of Monsters University in a month, but by the same token it won't be something you'll need to see again, even when it eventually becomes available on DVD. Once again, this is a Chris Wedge production that is good enough, but not quite great. Never great.

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