An Epic Fairy Battle

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Blue Sky Studios’ fairytale, Epic, is out on DVD and it is some worthwhile escapist fun for the young at heart, whatever your age.

Epic, based on William Joyce’s book The Leaf Men and The Brave Good Bugs, frames a standard dualism in the forces of nature between the Leaf Men, who represent the forces of growth, and the Boggins, who are little things dedicated to decomposition and decay.  Troubled teenager, Mary Katherine, wants to leave her father, who is crazy and believes that there’s an advanced civilization of fairies living in the woods around him.  The standard children’s fantasy plot evolves from there along very predictable lines.  Not only does Mary Katherine (MK for short) get shrunk down into the little people’s world, but she does it at just the moment when the fate of the forest is at stake, and plumps down right in the middle of it.  Now the fate of the forest rests on her ability to protect the flower that will be the next queen of the forest, and she has a pair of handsome fairy warriors to protect her.  And yes, one of them has to be a teenage nonconformist hunk with a heart of gold, who finds his place in society because he loves the fair damsel.

There are a few original ideas in the movie that are worth mentioning that stand out from the standard tropes.  A number of supporting cast characters will catch and hold your attention.  There’s a small and crooked race-fixer named Bufo (played by Pitbull, of all things) whose lines are pure gold.  Mub and Grub are a snail and a slug whose job is to care for the pod that will be the next queen.  They don’t steal any scenes, but the spice several up with their combination of completely baseless self-confidence that pokes great fun at their very role of supporting characters.  In all seriousness, they believe that they’re the heroes of the piece, which is a stroke of real genius in writing.

Epic’s lead roles deliver solid performances, but only a few are worth any special mention.  Christoph Waltz gives a great performance as entropy-king Mandrake, and whenever she’s on screen Queen Tara is a gently teasing delight.  Otherwise the leads’ greatest contribution to the film is letting the ingenious screenwriters shine.  Blue Sky employed a whole stable of writers for this movie, and it is well worth the effort.  The dialogue is always polished and runs the gamut from gently teasing to wry asides without to much as a hiccup.  No one settles for cliche here.  Every character has their own strong style of banter.

It’s an animated movie, so no review would be complete without a mention of the visual presentation.  There are a few better-animated films, like The Guardians of Gahoole, but once again Blue Sky delivers a solid, consistent visual style that is striking without becoming a distraction from the story.  There are some moments of genuine visual beauty, some glitz, and nice contrasting dark pallet scenes as things grow grim.  The guys among us will enjoy the visual motif of the Irish-Samurai mixture for the Leaf Men army.  The Boggins are delightfully gross, bordering on cute so that the little ones won’t have great nightmares from the story.  I’ve never imagined a three-legged myopic lapdog as a source of great slapstick, but there you have it.

The film is not without its faults.  The greatest fault must go back to the book, which I admittedly have not read, but at some point I want a story about nature fairies written by someone who knows the first thing about nature.  Slugs guarding flowers?  By keeping them moist?!?!  Anyone who has ever had a garden south of the Arctic circle knows that slugs are eating flowers when they ‘keep them moist’.  If your story is going to be about the forces of nature, they ought to be at least partially about the nature we can see out our windows.  Another cheap default is that the spiritual leader of the community is a total con man and a fraud.  Of course.  No one can ever have genuine faith in something worth believing.  All faith/wisdom leaders are frauds, kids, and don’t you forget it!

Those minor flaws are, if not  completely trivial, much lighter transgressions than most children’s movies try to foist upon us, and the rest of the movie is genuinely entertaining.  I expected to have the movie on in the background while working on my next manuscript, and I got no typing done.  It was an attention-grabber.  It’s worth renting, or buying if you have little ones.

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