Thursday, January 23, 2014

3 Stinkers – So Tall A Word For So Small A Movie

In his own words, WTF?!

One of the many prerequisites for a functional animated movie is a story that would hold up without animation.  This is not to say that all live-action films are necessarily superior to animated ones, nor to insinuate that all stories are more suited to live-action than animation, but only to point out that bright colors and buoyant characters alone are hardly sufficient props to support a motion picture.  Another basic rule governing animated and traditional movies alike is that they must retain even a semblance of logical coherency, no matter how fantastical their setting or incredible their heroics.  Blue Sky Studios’ Epic violates both of these rules with ease and commits so many cinematic infractions on the side that it will tire all but the most impressionable of children.  The reason why someone elected to tell a story of animated humans who live in animated homes next to an animated forest wherein dwell animated leaf people who ride animated hummingbirds and fight animated “boggons” is that the very idea of tiny nature people sharing the same planet with us lumbering, massive “stompers” is, for lack of a better word, a stupid premise, so stupid that it couldn’t possibly stand on its own without pretty CGI to mask all the faults behind its all too familiar plot.  I was already predisposed to hate this pile of three-legged dog crap just because it’s another issue in a long series of anti-capitalist, man-hating kiddie propaganda, but the blatant Environmentalist undertones of Epic are surprisingly the least of its offenses – the greatest being that it’s just dumb.

Epic’s origins are hard for me to pinpoint precisely without more thorough research on the creators’ sources, but if I had to speculate blindly I would guess that it stemmed from the drunken hangover of some guy who watched either Alice in Wonderland or James Cameron’s Avatar a few too many times.  Like a lot of lazy movies, it opens with a voiceover from the protagonist laying out in plain terms the subject matter of this particular kid flick.  We’ve all heard the cliché that “Mother Earth” is a living, breathing, evolving organism, arguably more alive than the good stewards who tend to it.  Epic conjectures that this cliché is literal fact: the forces of nature are embroiled in a mythic war of arbitrary good and evil whose outcome will ultimately determine the fate of all mankind, hence the movie’s assertive and by no means accurate title.  On one side of the conflict we have the noble, peace-loving insects, amphibians and leaves – everything that actually exists –, and on the other we have the bark-like, bat-riding boggons, who are bent on the total destruction of the world’s woodlands for no particular reason other than that they’re bad guys.

Scratch the sentence written a few arguments previously; the opening voiceover and rest of the movie never explain in plain terms what the heck a boggon is except to show they’re mean and ugly, nor does it illustrate how a certain Mr. Toad peacefully coexists with a certain mosquito confidante, nor does it articulate how a glowing, flowery “Pod” (it should have been called a Bud) that’s prized by the good guys can shrink a full-size human down to miniscule-size in a matter of seconds, nor does it establish a very scientific link between the tree critters’ destiny and man’s own, but we’ll get to all the other non-clarities in this mystery of a movie later.

“M.K.” looks like a student of college age who has no more urgent matters to attend to than visiting her loony single dad (is he divorced, widowed, or what?), who busies himself by maintaining a network of cameras so as to document an invisible civilization that lies deep within the beautiful and completely tranquil wilderness beyond his abode (The Village, this is not; Beowulf, this is not).  Her father lives as any paranoid, research-obsessed Hollywood-scientist who abandons his family to focus on work might be expected to, alone with nobody to comfort or amuse him but a three-legged dog which, like his office, his backyard, his car, his daughter, and all his surroundings, is completely computer-generated because the director was too dull-witted to consider that many real-world things don’t need to be animated and are better shot as is.  Take, for example, James and the Giant Peach, an admittedly forgettable movie that nevertheless mixed live-action photography with stop-motion animation to strong effect, or perhaps The Miracle Maker, which is entirely animated but intertwines stop-motion with more traditional, hand-drawn scenes to artistically distinguish Jesus’ parables from his own life.  But I digress.

One day our generic Hollywood heroine decides to go for a cathartic stroll in the forest, where she happens upon a little fairy (voiced by Beyonce of all the people who can talk into a microphone) who has been pierced in the chest by an arrow and now extends to her a magical shrinking flower that practically hollers Smell Me.  Disregarding that this is clearly an evolutionary offshoot of magical shrinking Eat Me cakes, M.K. smells the flower as it entreats her and immediately gets miniaturized into a realm of green-clad merry men.  For some reason, it takes her an incredibly long time to process this unfortunate development, even though the bushes and trees tower above her like the giant landmarks of Pandora and she is immediately taken into the custody of bird-mounting cavaliers and vaguely black, anthropomorphic slugs who evoke Star Wars’ dreaded Gungans in communicating with unmistakably inner-city accents and dialects.  Granting the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, I’ll assume these worthless slimeballs were just a well intentioned but woefully counterproductive effort by the producers to inject racial ‘diversity’ into the cast by any means.

I started writing this review right around the movie’s halfway point before convincing myself to shelve it for two months before steeling myself to take it up again this Newyear, so the finer details of the plot are currently a little foggy in my mind, but I seem to recollect something about the bad guys wanting to steal the Pod for their nefarious purposes and the good guys having to stop them.  Along the way M.K. learns the profound Moral of the Story, that “just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t real”, and gets twitterpated with an obligatory romantic interest unlike any she’s met before.  “Let’s just say that men of his stature are in, hm, short supply.  A ha ha!”  Wrong fairy tale movie.  Cue Beyonce end credits song.

Speaking of Beyonce, she can’t play a computer-animated character, nor can any other member of the ensemble, which consists largely of B-list stars who have no prior experience in voice acting.  Unlike Jack Black, Mike Myers & Eddie Murphy, Patrick Warburton, Andy Serkis, Stephen Fry, Diedrich Bader, and a host of other actors whose voices have vividly defined and distinguished their animated roles, none of Epic’s cast members remotely stand out in their vocal presence, nor do I comprehend why any of them were sought out to work on a movie that’s ostensibly aimed at young children.  How many kiddies know who Steven Tyler, Pitbull, or Beyonce are, anyway?  How many ought to know?

Really.  Who was the ******* **** who thought this was a ******* good idea?

The cinematography camera work direction storyboarding is just as bland as the performances.  Some animators have harnessed the freedom of digital software to simulate camera movements so sweeping and complex that they would be effectively impossible in real life.  Exhibit A) of this kind is Dreamwork’s Kung Fu Panda, with How To Train Your Dragon trailing close behind; both films featured several spectacular tracking and spinning shots that wouldn’t be easily achievable with real camera gear.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have animators who deliberately try to minimize the impression of software upon their project’s cinematography.  Surf’s Up cleverly satirized documentary filmmaking by mimicking the handheld camera bobs and jerks that permeate the genre, while Rango paid homage to spaghetti westerns with its emphasis on still shots, broad landscape profiles, and dramatic framing.  Epic doesn’t faithfully observe either of these techniques, nor does it carve out a unique and interesting style to call its own other than a jarring preeminence of Anti-Physics.  In a home invasion sequence initiated by mini M.K. and her new mini pals, the filmmakers repeatedly demonstrate the Theory of Sizeist Relativity, which holds that bigger things always move slower than smaller things regardless of their actual velocities in respect to a common point. So what if the dog by virtue of its superior strength and length of stride would easily outrun the tiny leaf people?  Viewers don’t want to see a massive dog charge into its diminutive targets at high speed because that would be unexpected, and viewers generally buy tickets to see their expectations fulfilled, not to see realism.  Hence the dog running in slow-motion while all the microscopic heroes flee at normal speed. Again we witness the controversial Theory in numerous conversations held between toads, caterpillars, fruit flies, and gastropods that are all animated at roughly the same height and width but pale in comparison to the towering, carnivorous mice which prowl the wilder regions of the woods.

Actually, that part just makes no sense, kind of like all the energy I’ve expended by now to deconstructing the plotline and physics of a children’s cartoon, and a really lousy one at that.  For all its masquerading as an original film (based loosely on a literary masterpiece entitled “The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs”) in a deluge of uninspired sequels, Epic still felt like the same insipid CG fare I had gorged way too often throughout my youth, having some Tale of Despereaux here, some Lorax there, and some Bug’s Life and Thor (giant becomes small, fights little people’s battles, falls in love with a little person, kisses little person goodbye, returns to the giants’ world, and starts searching for a way back) spilled haphazardly all over the place, but never adding up to anything.  So derivative is the script that it even stoops to plagiarizing jokes from more adult-oriented pictures, viz. The Descendants.

“Your friend’s completely retarded, you know that?”
“Hey, I have a little brother who’s retarded/squashed by a stomper.  Don’t use that word in derogatory fashion.”
[A moment of awkward silence]
“I’m just kidding, I don’t have a retarded/squashed brother!”

Too bad a stomper didn’t, eh, stomp on this tripe before some boggon studio got a handle on it.

Grade rating: C

1 comment:

  1. I would give the movie an E- for everything in Epic


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