...shining light on the media, one review at a time
Parents waiting for a positive and safe movie to take their kids to at the theatre may be giving up hope, since the only thing epic in most recent “family” pictures is the amount of crudity, language, sensuality, and other issues they contain. According to Merriam-Webster, one of the definitions of “epic” is “extending beyond the usual or ordinary especially in size or scope.” It is this kind of epic, a film that goes against the new norm of inappropriate content, that is needed to redeem the family movie genre.
Families get their wish come true in the appropriately-titled animated flick, Epic. Filled with fast-paced adventure, humor, creative animation, and a heartwarming story, Epic hearkens back to the days of the classic Disney films that once defined family-friendly film. A controlled dose of modern relevance and generous imagination keeps the movie fresh, while its uplifting content extends Epic beyond the ordinary, making it a big success for summer family fun.
“What do you say to a total stranger?” Mary Katherine asks the taxi driver who takes her out into the forest wilderness. But she’s not referring to the driver—she’s talking about her father.
After her mother’s death, Mary Katherine, who prefers to be called M.K., has to go live with her father, whom she hasn’t seen since her parents divorced years before. The reason for the split? Her father went crazy.
At least, that’s what the teenager’s mother told her. M.K.’s dad became obsessed with the idea that there is an advanced society of miniature people living in the forest that most humans just don’t notice. Finding these little people is still his life’s goal when M.K. shows up to live with him.
It doesn’t take M.K. long to change her mind about staying when she sees her father’s eccentric habits and assumed insanity. On her way out the door, M.K. is momentarily distracted and led into the forest, where she encounters the adventure of her life. Learning that her father isn’t crazy is only a fraction of what M.K. discovers about herself and others as she joins forces with the people of the forest in their battle to save the natural world from the evil villains who wish to destroy it.
No, there aren’t really little people living in the forest. At least, I don’t think there are. At any rate, parents can let go of fears that their kids are going to be misled by this film, since it clearly belongs in the fantasy genre and will be harmless when presented as such to children.
For youngsters and adults, Epic actually leads viewers in the right direction. With a degree of positive content that is recently found only in select Pixar films, Epic offers several meaningful messages. The most touching and relevant of these emerges in the relationship between M.K. and her father.
Like many twenty-first century teens, M.K. comes from a home broken by divorce and has a severely damaged relationship with her dad. Surprisingly, M.K. is not angry with him when she arrives at his home, but neither does she try to believe or understand his quest to find the forest people. Later, M.K. grows in admiration and respect for her dad, even defending him when her new friends make fun of him.
The importance of fathers resonates throughout the picture, from M.K.’s obvious grief over not having known him during her childhood, to her calling on him in her greatest time of need. Such a message is rare enough in contemporary film, but particularly in a case like this, when the father here is not at all “cool,” attractive, or charming. Instead, he is an ordinary, average man who makes mistakes, but is effusively kind and clearly loves his daughter. It’s an epic move to show that a confident, modern young heroine needs anything from such a man as M.K.’s father, and Epic emphatically does just that.
But then, M.K. is hardly the usual animated picture heroine. In her character, the filmmakers show that they’re not afraid to buck any of the new stereotypes. Viewers disturbed by the recent inundation of self-centered female characters who have to be as violent and tough as the boys while flaunting their sexuality, will be thrilled to find in M.K. a heroine worthy of a little girl’s admiration and emulation.
M.K.’s one outfit in the film, leggings covered by a skirt and a zippered hoodie on top, is fashionable, yet amazingly modest according to the movie norm of our day. Along with the absence of skin and sex-appeal, M.K. is refreshingly without the juvenile attitude and feminist angst of modern animated film heroines. She isn’t rude or unkind, even to the father she could resent, but rather displays a resilient spirit and great maturity that results in compassion for others. She is not perfect, and occasionally gives way to selfish thinking, but she doesn’t sacrifice kindness or patience to get what she wants.
The film is so original in M.K.’s character that she is not even thrust into the role of female action hero, as nearly every recent live-action and animated feature seems to do with women. M.K. shows that she is smart, a fast learner, and athletic, but she doesn’t have to wield a sword or throw any punches to prove her worth. Ultimately, M.K. demonstrates to girls that they don’t need to be violent, immature, or sexy to be admired and heroic.
Epic also pushes against the stereotypical reluctant hero in the young soldier M.K. meets among the forest people. Predictably, viewers first meet Nod when he’s in a period of rebellion, as he leaves the army of Leafmen to go have fun. Epic then breaks out of the mold a bit by limiting the degree and harmful nature of Nod’s rebellion (losing focus and disobeying a direct order are the worst of Nod’s mistakes). Most importantly, M.K. is not attracted to Nod until he starts acting more maturely and taking responsibility.
The theme of fatherhood is doubly emphasized in a subplot of Nod and his commanding officer/mentor, Ronin, but the list of positive messages doesn’t end there. Self-sacrifice is also threaded throughout the picture, as several characters endanger or give up their lives to save others (or the forest itself).
A commitment to serving each other is at the core of the forest people’s society, leading to their encouraging belief that “no one is alone.” Their philosophy is “many leaves, one tree,” meaning that, though people are unique individuals, they are “still connected.” Though undoubtedly coming from a secular point of view, this idea is consistent with several Christian truths—the Body of the Church and all humans created in the image of God for one chief purpose, to name two. Other positive messages in the movie include the evils of divorce, stewardship of nature, and empathy for others, even society’s outcasts.
The list of Epic’s faults is much shorter than the account of its successes. The filmmakers make an apparent effort to avoid offensive language, using the milder “oh, my gosh” in place of the profane version of the phrase. The only problematic word they do unnecessarily slip in is “heck,” while one character also says “doggone.” A few characters engage in minor name-calling with words like “jerk,” “flat-face,” and “jelly-butt.”
The latter name is the only instance of the crude bathroom humor that so often dominates other kids’ movies. Epic replaces the reused old jokes with new, clever ones that steer clear of unoriginal body humor and gross-out moments.
Action violence is a bit of a concern in this film, since several battles are depicted. These scenes are all clearly in the context of a war of good versus evil, and all wounds sustained are necessary parts of such battles. Again, the filmmakers take care to insure that very little violence and gore is shown. In one scene in which a character is getting beat up by corrupt racing villains, the punches are delivered off-screen, and viewers are told the good guy only got punched twice.
In other moments that show violent acts, the film employs similar maneuvers to keep injuries and death from being graphic or too frightening for children. That said, extremely young or sensitive kids might be better off kept from seeing Epic until they’re older, since the movie does have scary villains and situations (though none unduly so).
The bar is set high for the production quality of animated films, and few but Pixar seem to meet it. In some aspects, Epic makes this task higher on itself by taking a more realistic approach to animating the characters and world of the story. As excellent as computer animation has become, the technology still has limitations when it comes to depicting humans in authentic detail. However, Epic comes as close as any film has to reality with most of the characters and shows sheer brilliance in some of the animated animals (M.K.’s dog, for example, is astonishingly lifelike).
The forest scenes and action sequences are fully-realized feats of modern animation techniques that allow audiences to engage in a fast-paced world of palpable realism. The masterful animation of the forest exploration, flights on hummingbirds, and encounters with lifelike wildlife make this film seem vibrantly three-dimensional, even when watching the 2D version.
Given this command of the craft, it is startling to see one prominent character very poorly animated. The queen is not in the film for an extensive period, but, when she is, the strange inaccuracies of her facial features and expressions are distracting. The backfire of this attempt to make the queen’s face expressive contributes to the impression that Beyoncé Knowles, who voices the role, is the weak link in the otherwise solid cast.
While Knowles fails to deliver in a part that is, in her defense, severely one-dimensional, Amanda Seyfried brings added nuances to M.K. with her impressive voice performance. It can be difficult to give a genuine performance from a recording studio, but Seyfried does just that, lending a compelling authenticity that makes M.K. seem to develop more than the character actually does on paper. Colin Farrell also gives a standout performance as Ronin, conveying the emotional depth that lies beneath the character’s tough persona.
An animated feature aimed at kids that’s actually good for them? A big-budget picture with a heroine and multiple heroes that are safe for girls and boys to emulate? An entertaining movie the whole family can watch, enjoy, and learn from together (that’s not even made by Pixar)? That’s not just different. That’s Epic.
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” – Genesis 1:27 (ESV)
Check out these similar titles:
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Walden Media, 2005)
The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising (Walden Media, 2007)
Up (Pixar, 2009)
For more ideas, check out our What to Watch page!