Looking at a May 24th release date, Chris Wedge certainly has quite a bit on his plate and very little time to get it all done. And while I’m sure he understands his role in the film’s promotion is of great importance, I’m equally sure he probably had better places to be this past March 12th than pacing around the Little Theatre on the Fox lot, playing clips and trying to excite a group of journalists about his new feature, Epic. His studio is still finishing up some little last minute things, like the animation, rendering and sound mixing. But truth be told, he didn’t have to work that hard at convincing those in attendance that Blue Sky’s latest film is worthy of our attention. Based on the clips and concept art shown, the picture feels part Avatar, part Lord of the Rings and part Gladiator, with a bit of Laurel and Hardy thrown in to boot. This is certainly no Ice Age. And it definitely looks great.
As Chris explained, Blue Sky started 26 years ago, intent on creating images you’d never seen before and couldn’t see any other way. “The film [not only] represents an evolution for Blue Sky technically, but also in storytelling. We’ve always felt character was most important. For me, watching audiences and watching movies, characters are what they love. But I love worlds too.”
Chris went on to describe how this movie, a very personal film loosely based on William Joyce’s book The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs, started with an idea for a world. Epic’s world is the lush and mysterious world of the forest. And in woods all over the world, there is a constant, unseen struggle going on between the forces of “life” and the forces of “decay.” The good guys in this ongoing struggle are called the Leafmen, little 2 inch tall green samurai who protect the forest. Because of their small size, the physics of their world is different from ours. They can leap like crickets, dart about, fall from great heights and not get hurt. They ride around on hummingbirds, the jet fighter pilots of the forest. Their eternal enemies, the bad guys, are the Boggans, who, as Chris described, “are like the little creepy crawly things you see when you kick over a rotten log.” Dimwitted but nevertheless dangerous, they attack in huge numbers and bring decay and destruction whenever they go. The Leafmen are always on guard, always at the ready.
The main characters are General Ronin, voiced by Colin Farrell (Total Recall, In Bruges), the stoic, veteran soldier, the career vet, Mandrake, the sinister Boggans’ leader, voiced by Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Bastards, Django Unchained), Professor Bomba, voiced by SNL’s Jason Sudeikis, the bumbling, absent-minded scientist whom no one believes and who has lost most everything in his quest to prove these tiny creatures actually exist, his smart, teenage daughter MK (Mary Katherine), voiced by Amanda Seyfried (Les Misérables and TV’s Big Love), who accidentally shrinks, like Alice in Wonderland, landing right in the middle of our forest battle, Nod, the good natured recruit who becomes MKs protector, voiced by Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games), and Queen Tara, the life of the forest, voiced by Beyoncé Knowles (The 2013 Super Bowl halftime entertainer with the really, really tall spiked heels). Our main comic relief is provided by Aziz Ansari (Parks and Recreation) as the slug Mub, and Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids, Dinner for Schmucks) as the snail Grub, good natured but slightly inept guards who play a crucial role later in the film.
The stage for our story is set when Mandrake’s forces attack, springing an ambush during the middle of a special ceremony where Queen Tara transfers her energy into a young pod, thus ensuring the forest’s life force will continue to exist. The Queen survives, but is injured during her escape. She somehow manages to transfer the pod to MK, who is unwittingly pulled into this tiny world of the forest and suddenly tasked with the pod’s safety. Together with Mub and Grub, Nod and the General, they journey through distant and exotic, sometimes alien though often familiar-looking parts of the forest, meeting eccentric and sometimes dangerous characters along the way. Eventually, they meet up with Nim, the Keeper of the Scrolls, voiced by Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler. Within his tree are the rings of knowledge, within which all history is recorded. With his help, the group ostensibly figures out where to go and what to do with the pod. Mandrake, as you imagine, intervenes, steals the pod, which sets up the final act, where MK and our group muster all their courage and skills to defeat Mandrake and save the forest.
As Chris explained, the finale is particularly action packed. “Rest assured,” he told the group, “you’re going to get plenty of swashing and buckling, with characters trying to live up to and beyond their potential, including Mary Katherine’s arc, which not only is going to involve acclimating to this strange world, but will also involve helping her father discover it from within, having a role in its most important moments.”
Based on Chris’ presentation and the few clips we were shown, this indeed is a big departure from Blue Sky’s previous films, not just in story but in visual design and style. Though we saw glimpses of the type of humor we expect from a Blue Sky film, Epic isn’t a whimsical or “cutesy” family tale. From Waltz’s stilted Teutonic accent to the barbs of his comments, his subtle performance gives Mandrake, as well as the story, a very real sense of danger. Fresh from his Oscar®-winning performance in Django, Waltz is a perfect villain. Chris has put his talents to good use.
Though the characters are, for the most part, extremely small, don’t be fooled. The scale of their worlds, the spectacle of their ceremonies and the enormity of their battles truly make this action-packed story an “epic” adventure.
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.