There’s nothing like a dead parent or two to kick off a children’s story. Literary and cinematic orphans from Tom Sawyer to Dorothy Gale to Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter have captivated children with their freedom of thought and their existence outside the boundaries of parental control.
The animated children’s action adventure “Epic” trades in this setup a bit. Teenager Mary Katherine (called M.K. and voiced by Amanda Seyfried) is sent to live in an isolated forest with her eccentric father Professor Bomba (Jason Sudeikis). Bomba is convinced, rightly as it happens, that his particular forest is inhabited by a civilization of tiny people who are daily combatants in a cosmic (or perhaps epic?) struggle between the forces of light and the forces of decay.
The 3D computer-generated animation from Blue Sky Studios, known for the “Ice Age” series, is enchanting, drawing the viewer in to the delicate beauty of the lush flowers and plants seen in close-up, but also providing roller-coaster action during chase and battle sequences. The battles are mostly between the Leaf Men, an elite squad of tiny, hummingbird-riding commandos, and their insect-like enemies who want to transform the forest into a barren, gassy bog.
Colin Farrell voices Ronin, the head of the Leaf Men, a grim, taciturn creature who puts a lot of effort into shielding his affection for Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles) and his protege Nod (Josh Hutcherson). To balance the half-orphan story of Mary Katherine, Nod’s father was a casualty of war. Nod himself is a bit of a teenage rebel, chafing under the rules of the Leaf Men and especially under Ronin’s attempts to act as his surrogate father. He goes so far as to desert the group on the eve of its greatest challenge — the safe conveyance of Queen Tara to the lily pond where she will select a single flower bud that will guarantee the safety of her people for 100 years.
Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) contrives to steal the bud for his own sinister purposes. M.K. inadvertently stumbles into this battle, and winds up being shrunken down to the size of the tiny combatants and taking a lead role herself. Sorry for the spoiler, but it’s worth letting parents know that Queen Tara is killed in this action — a moment which led some of the youngest children in a screening audience to wail inconsolably. (It’s probably best not to take tots much younger than 5 to this one.) Nod has to return to the fold to try to rescue the bud, and is both smitten and flummoxed by the feisty M.K.
Comic relief comes from Bomba’s obtuse efforts to locate the tiny civilization, and from Mub and Grub (Aziz Ansari and Chris O’Dowd respectively), two slugs who are charged with taking care of the bud but have aspirations outside the confines of their small pond — Grub wants to join the Leaf Men, while Mub would be content to court M.K., despite the interspecies barrier.
There’s a little bit of “The Borrowers” here, and some “Star Wars” as well, but “Epic,” based on characters from a series of books by William Joyce, has its own peculiar and compelling mojo. It’s fast-paced without being too intense for young moviegoers and manages to be romantic without being treacly or suggestive.
CREDITS: Directed by Chris Wedge; screenplay by James V. Hart, William Joyce, et al.
RATING: PG for mild, cartoon violence; probably suitable for children aged 5-11
RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS