“Epic” is an animated fantasy story directed by Chris Wedge, who also directed Ice Age (2002) and Robots (2005), so already it’s got a lot going for it.
The film is loosely based on “The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs” by William Joyce, who also created the animated world of “The Guardians” (2012). Very
loosely from what I can gather from the book blurb. The film is set in Joyce’s fictional world and borrows a few characters is about it as far as I can tell.
But since Joyce served as as writer, executive producer, and production designer on the film, I think this counts as an original work in the same fictional world rather than a writer getting the shaft from the suits.
The world of “Epic” is enchanting, suffused with both magic and science. The magical world exists in a wood around the home/laboratory of very eccentric Professor Bomba (Jason Sudeikis).
And very much like the stories in the multi-colored Fairy Books of Andrew Lang or the appropriately named Grim’s Fairy Tales, the opening premise is almost unbearably sad.
Seventeen-year-old Mary Katherine Bomba (Amanda Seyfried) returns to live with her estranged father after the death of her mother. Her mother it is revealed, left her father because of his nutty obsession that there was a civilization of little people in the forrest. To this end he installs cameras all over the wood and traipses around it with a helmet equipped with magnifying lenses and instruments.
Of course the Professor is right and MK has her nose rubbed in this when the Queen of the forest shrinks her down to their size after she is mortally wounded by the evil Boggans.
Queen Tara (Beyoncé Knowles) has just picked a flowering bud, which will in some way become her successor when it blooms in the light of the full moon on one special night.
She is killed by Mandrake (Christopher Waltz), king of the Boggans who are embodiments of the forces of rot and decay, and dies in the arms of Ronin (Colin Farrell), the leader of the Leafmen warriors. Ronin and the Queen have a history, making it doubly-tragic.
MK get the bud to a magical place at the appointed time, with the aid of Ronin and the obligatory handsome-though-irresponsible rogue Nod (Josh Hutcherson), and comic relief provided by two protectors of the buds: a slug named Mub (Aziz Ansari) and snail named Grub (Chris O’Dowd).
Grub is also the stereotypical nebbish who wants to be a Leafman warrior.
And who wouldn’t? Leafmen ride hummingbirds, wear green armor and fight with swords and bows! They’re major cool and the animation does a great job of conveying the vertiginous feeling of an aerial cavalry charge.
The story is one we’ve heard many times and never grow tired of. The band embarks on a quest. They are almost undone when the young warrior does something stupid and irresponsible, and must redeem himself. He is mentored by an older and wiser warrior and wins the affections of a beautiful princess, or in this case professor’s daughter. The nebbish earns his spurs. It’s all there.
The plot-devices are well-integrated: the swords and bows, videocams and iPods all turn out to be essential for victory.
And it’s got a tragic back-story that gives the victory of life real meaning. MK is named after Joyce’s daughter Mary Katherine, who died from a brain tumor at the age of 18.
The story is about a war between the forces of life and green growing things, and the powers of death and decay.
The idea is roughly equivalent to the War of Law and Chaos utilized by fantasy writers such as Michael Moorcock. It’s a stand-in for those fantasy writers and fans who are uncomfortable with their fantasy being as overtly religious as Tolkien or C.S. Lewis.
The idea is that law and chaos/life and death must balance, that neither can or should win unconditionally. The green and growing plants of the forest spring from the decaying humus on its floor after all.
This isn’t really made clear though, there’s only a brief reference to the bad guys upsetting the balance.
And there’s the names. Tolkien borrowed pretty consistently from historical sources in the Northern myths.
“Epic” uses names from English and Irish sources, but in a hodge-podge with no internal logic I can see.
Boggan is derived from English legends of malevolent fairies (related to “the boggie man”). Their king is Mandrake, the name of a root used in European herbology with a lot of myth and legend associated with it but no real connection here except the name sounds vaguely menacing.
Mandrake’s son is “Dagda.” In Irish mythology The Dagda Mor (pronounced “die-dah”) is the father-god and protector, not an evil figure at all.
And “Ronin” is a Japanese word meaning a samurai without a master. It would have been a more appropriate name for Nod – which is itself from a classical English children’s poem with little significance to this story