Epic is bound to be scolded for its screenplay's rampant rip-offs, which can be traced to The Borrowers, The Wizard of Oz, Fern Gully, The Lord of the Rings, and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (charges of Avatar copycatting are sure to abound as well, but since that film was already epically derivative, such criticisms don't seem fair). The script's real problem, though, isn't in the tales it apes, but in its manner of storytelling. It's hard to recall a recent film, kid-targeted or otherwise, so thoroughly comprised of exposition, with characters, particularly in the first act, saying virtually nothing but that which spells out the plot in bold, underlined letters. The only thing that's not explicitly stated in this forest-set fantasy, which sees human teen Mary Katherine, or "M.K." (Amanda Seyfried), shrink to insect dimensions and live among the wee folks her scientist father (Jason Sudeikis) has been hunting for years, is the meaning of Rot, the viral, life-sucking, charcoal-like substance spread by evil Mandrake (Christolph Waltz) and his cronies. Rot registers as urban sprawl, human neglect, and deforestation in a nutshell, making Epic another nobly green-themed flick for tykes, following last year's The Lorax. But even that thematic virtue doesn't carry the weight it should, forcing the film to rest almost entirely on the power of its visuals.
Many viewers may leave this movie pondering the relevance of the title, as the traditional epic's vast, sweeping feel is absent here, despite the big, big detail that M.K. must save her pint-sized pals to keep Earth's ecosystem working. But if the title were simply meant to convey the hugeness of Epic's beauty, that'd make it apt enough. Astonishing in 3D, but likely just as fetching without, the film is a major aesthetic triumph for Blue Sky Studios, who brought in Chris Wedge, helmer of their own Ice Age and Robots, to direct. It begins by drawing you in through a foreground, middleground, and background of verdant trees, before lightning-fast hummingbirds and crows dart into the frame, each bird carrying a good or evil soldier on its back. Thrown from his steed, Nod (Josh Hutcherson), a fledgling forest warrior, surfs his way across branches like Disney's Tarzan, but with the stunning sharpness of Sam Worthington's blue-skinned Na'vi infiltrator. After outmaneuvering their archrivals (one of whom, modeled after a shark, falls from his blackbird, and lands, with a transgressive splat, on a car windshield), the do-gooders, led by Ronin (Colin Farrell), return to their woodsy headquarters, where Queen Tara (Beyoncé Knowles), a Mother Nature of sorts, awaits.
Hiring Beyoncé to voice the queen of the forest is just as sneer-inducing as hiring Pitbull to voice a Jabba the Hutt-like thug (or, while we're talking musicians, tapping Steven Tyler to voice a chubby cross between Dorothy's Wizard and Alice's Caterpillar), but neither of those choices, nor Danny Elfman's oft-excessive score, can diminish the grand variety of marvelous moments on screen. Traveling to a pond to choose a pod that will spawn her heir, Queen Tara is carried by a flock of dragonflies in a leaf-like ship, which gorgeously unfolds into a water lily when it hits the pond's surface. Tara's chambers are shielded by ferns that unfurl skyward with eye-popping glory, and her whole kingdom is a miniature Munchkinland of talking mushrooms, flowers, and insects, two of whom, Mub (Aziz Ansari) and Grub (Chris O'Dowd), provide comic relief—and, graciously, aren't token blacks. Even the villains' lair is a feast for the eyes—a kind of elephant graveyard where everyone wears bone-and-carcass armor, and bats and drones swarm out of caverns like the orcs from The Fellowship of the Ring.
In this post-Brave adventure, it's nice to see the two most crucial characters, Queen Tara and M.K., be female, and another plus is a small handful of laugh-out-loud jokes, such as when a flower tells her worried dandelion gal pal to "get a hold of [herself]," shaking her until her feathery seeds go flying around the room. But the funniest gag is Ozzie, M.K.'s blind, three-legged, lovable pug, whose comedy can be appreciated in strictly visual terms. And that's the thing with Epic: It's something close to an animated masterpiece, provided it's watched on mute.