Thursday, May 30, 2013

An "Epic" Rant

I love animation and to say otherwise would be a cardinal sin. Animation is my favorite art form in the world, and I hold it in high regard unlike most adults do and never would disregard it as "children's only" entertainment. But in recent years, much of the Animation world has slipped into a buck for buck sort, where all the competition relies in the money and much of the quality is just automatically put to the side.

This can be clearly seen in films by the top studios like Disney, who now are stuck on princess themed movies (excluding Wreck It Ralph) and even influencing sub-company Pixar to follow their lead (Brave) And with the success of movies like Despicable Me and The Smurfs, no wonder studios are desperate for quick cash in flicks rather than effort showcasing masterpieces.

Then we arrive to the worst of the worst when it comes to these cash grabbing projects: Blue Sky. Most known for creating the lackluster Ice Age movies, the charming but only decent Rio and the similarly decent Horton Hears A Who, Blue Sky has yet to create a masterpiece that would be remembered by generations like its peers DreamWorks and Disney/Pixar have achieved.

But the studio released a new film this past weekend, entitled Epic (loosely based on the Leaf Men and The Brave Good Bugs book by William Joyce.) With being given such a different marketing title than it's source, this movie must truly be at least interesting. Let's take a moment to examine.

FYI: While speaking about this film, I would like to take into a reference two other flicks: 90's nostalgia classic Ferngully, and another recent Joyce book to movie adaptation, Rise of the Guardians, to which is not a literal adaptation but will work for what is needed in speaking about this.


Epic tells the story of a 17 year old girl named Mary Katherine (who prefers to be known as MK), who after the death of her mother goes to live with her estranged and quirky scientist father, Professor Bomba. When trying to connect, MK becomes frustrated with her father's obsession of an evolved society of small little people that protect the forest (to which is discovered the reason why MK's parents split.)

When MK becomes fed up with her parental situation, she decides to run away and in doing so becomes part of the struggle of the Leaf Men and their forest world (the society her father believed to be real.) In this world, the magical inhabitants of the forest are celebrating their Queen's choosing of her heir to the throne. But an evil group of creatures called the Boggans, refuse to let this celebration go as planned, allowing them to destroy the forest.

Now, if this plot sounds incredibly familiar, spoiler alert: it's been done way, way, WAY too many times. Not that a young person getting sucked into a fantasy realm isn't interesting, in fact it can be incredibly effective, but when that person is shrunk down in size and deals with an eco-system battle seems all too similar to another animated flick. :::coughcoughFERNGULLYcoughcough::::

In that film, we learn about the struggle of the creatures within this forest easily and effectively. We understand why they exist, why the thing attempting to destroy them exists, why the boy is there in the first place and the emotional struggles with each of the characters reactions to the results at the end of the story. Unfortunately, Epic can only handle explaining one of these.

For example, The Boggan, our villains for this film, seem right off the bat as awesomely awful as some of Disney's most memorable creations. With their creepy smiles, decorating themselves in the skins of dead animals, and the added bonus of having their leader voiced by the great Christoph Waltz, makes these baddies seem so full of detail and a possibly rich history that you'd love to learn more. Wrong! Instead Epic refuses to give us even a glimmer of a backstory to these monsters and instead leaves us with bland bad guys that we don't even want to take the time to "Boo!" at.

But when compared to Ferngully's Hexxus and Rise's Pitch Black, we are given two villains that are both terrifying and detailed in multiple ways. Hexxus doesn't nessecarly have a rich history from his initial creation, but from his past lives he has terrorized the forest on numerous occasions and created many battles and deaths in his time. Pitch Black on the other hand is probably the oldest (next to The Man in the Moon) of the children guardian spirits, and though his full history from the books is not discussed in the film, we get enough of a sense as to why he wants revenge on the Guardian's successes.

Sure, there are many stories that have villains that just exist to be a source of "darkness" within the story. But ultimately without a thread of reasons or source to their evil, we are left with boring individual(s) that are not terrifying or even comical in their depictions, but instead a complete waste of time within the story. If we have no reason to fear them, why should the characters themselves give a hoot about what they do?

As for the other characters, I could not name you one of them to which I myself cared about near the end of the movie. The writers try very hard to give us some thread of emotional connection and relationships between the characters, where we, the audience, will in fact have an equally effective emotional result.

This is made clear in the relationships that warrior Ronin has with Queen Tara and young Leafman, Nod. In the beginning, a scene with Ronin and Tara is written to show that they like each other. Of course this is done so forced that even a five year old would say "Where's the love?", to which when Tara's fate meets with an unhappy ending, the best reaction you could get out of me was a shrug (but in all honestly, does anyone actually care about a character voiced by Beyonce dying? Think about it.)

But yet what becomes incredibly confusing was how in the sequences that followed the death of Tara, multiple characters reference how much Ronin loved her. Fun fact: It would have been great to develop this much better through out the beginning of the movie OR let Tara die later for it to have a better emotional impact OR shocking, maybe control alt delete the entire plot line completely, as it added nothing to the story.

In contrast when you look at characters Magi Lune of Ferngully and Sandman of Rise, when they die we actually care. We see the relationships and emotions they have with other characters, we see the influence they have within their own respective worlds, and this creates an emotional reaction with the audience.

Maybe it's because I am a jaded 90's kid, who even at the lowest quality of animated movies felt the emotional connection of the characters, but if this modern animated "epic" couldn't make me flinch with any sort of reaction from any of the cast or sequences - that's pretty bad. This also can be said for the humor. This film uses poop jokes and silly bits to fill in the plot gaps, which is becoming as overused in the animation world as rapper Flow Rida in American pop music.

But what is more shocking? None of the kids laughed. I sat next to a group of 5 - 7 year old kids and not one of them laughed at any of the jokes and much of the time were left completely and utterly bored out of their minds. If you thought making the adult audience laugh is a struggle, if you can't make the kids laugh at the "kids movie" then it's simple to say you have failed, plain and simple.

"But Dalin!" you will say "Kids are too young to care about all these things you are complaining about! They are simple and stupid minded and need things spoon fed to them! All these complaints are too much!"

Well, reader, I will then present exhibit A- Disney's 1992 masterpiece Aladdin. This film has consistently been one of the funniest movies I have ever seen in my life. From the tender age of 4 when I saw it, to my current age of 23, this movie stands a humor approved test of time. As a kid you laugh at the silly bits of seltzer down your pants moments and as an adult you embrace all the perfect uses of the pop culture references (even though they themselves are a wee bit dated) along with the beautiful use of Al Hirschfield's influence in the character designs. This film also builds it's relationships and makes us understand the layers of the characters brilliantly, and embrace them as real individuals, even with their cartoon appearances.

Now I present to you Exhibit B - DreamWorks huge monster hit Shrek. Though this film's animation looks a bit weird juxtaposed to current animation technology, this movie still stands as one of the company's best and can easily sit on the shelf next to some of Pixar's classics. Now you might like to pin point to my argument that Shrek is also full of stupid and poop joke humor. Yes, but the thing is Shrek uses this humor effectively. It's telling a story of a once treasured fairy tale world from the perspective of a cynical outcast character, who is the complete polar opposite of all the things we love about the Disney version of fairy tales. He isn't perfect and he's disgusting, so why shouldn't the jokes surrounding him be so? And unlike Epic, Shrek also understands emotional connections between characters, building up to moments with perfect and not forced details, making Fiona and Shrek one of the weirdest yet most realistic couples in the animation universe.

If you take a look at this, and countless other animated examples, it's clear to see that there are much better and effort field movies than Blue Sky's Epic. And this should be a note to both the studio and Hollywood in general:

Kids (and audiences) are not stupid. In fact Hollywood, children and adults are smarter than ever have been and you can't just slap together an animated movie with some literal jokes and lines and expect it to be embraced and enjoyed. It's a waste of some truly creative people (like Joyce's) talents as writers and storytellers to have them come up or "dumb down" stories just for what you think will be enjoyed by a wide "family" audience.

Sure, it's fine to play the safe "kids movie" card and include all the bread without the butter, but the audience strives for that butter - that conflict and that drive to follow the story, to which this film lacks completely. If the audience can't give any sort of feeling towards the characters, then what is even the point of making it a narrative? You might as well stick to making it a short music video, which would initially seem much more engaging than an actual hour and a half film. (And, with the voices of people like Pitbull and Steven Tyler, it might as well have been a music video anyway.)

This also needs to be said: Mr. Joyce, I'm sorry that the majority of Hollywood can't seem to translate your brilliant writing onto the big screen without destroying the intention and soul of the original piece. I give credit to the team on Rise of the Guardians for being the only ones to attempt to get the feel of your stories right. It might have not been a direct interpretation (in actuality, it's a sequel) of your stories, but at least they got what your stories were about. I hope one day someone else can take the Leaf Men stories and give them the love they deserve.

And finally, Film Industry, start looking at your past to see your future. Families will go see movies together if you take the time to see what will be embraced by all members of said unit. This is why Pixar and Dreamworks are successful - they know what works for all members of an audience and will make their work stand the test of time. Other studios need to realize this and stop wasting money and time on quick buck films and rather be artists. Until then, these second rate studios will be busy making this endless amount of crap that will eventually put tons of animators/artists out of good positions.

If you don't do this, we will see the cracks, which will lead to the unfortunate demise of the Animation industry in this country and that would be the saddest lose of all. Again Hollywood, stop playing the safe card and come to terms with what will be remembered and not what "sells".

So in general, Epic is not epic. It has incredible issues in multiple areas and is the best example of why modern American animation is going slowly down the tubes. We need to realize that the entertainment that we deem meant for "families" is just as important as any other public medium show in this country. It influences children to become adults and dream, similar to the way the person typing this rant has been inspired. And if we keep coming out with crap like this, we might as well stop hoping that kids will have a good imagination.


Kieli said...

And this is why I'm so disappointed with today's movies. I too grew up with movies like Aladdin, Ferngully and of the like. Sadly, creators of today think kids are dumb and should only be exposed to "safe" movies yet we are surrounded by TV and ads filled with sex and violence. Kids movies from back in the day were enjoyable for all ages. The creators didn't care about making a quick buck or who used the best CGI. They actually put their all into story and character development.
I'll probably still see Epic at some point, probably after it's out of theaters just to check it out. But I agree with you, creators need to go back to the old way of thinking. It's like the video game companies of today. While Sony and Microsoft are duking it out with who can dish out the best system every year, Nintendo is just hanging back and getting their stuff done right. Sony and Microsoft disappoint me.

Unknown said...

I agree that a lot of movies are just pumped out to make a quick buck. I think that you can see that in how the designs for these movies all looks the same. The animation in aladdin and sleeping beauty look totally different. Can anyone tell me how epic looks different from rotg? I don't think they look different because they didn't have a different concept. Making money.

Dalin "Duckie" Rowell said...

Kieli - Totally agree with you, and correct analogy with the Nintendo thing!

Arianna - Good points made, but I actually Aladdin is different looking from Sleeping Beauty mostly because there was a clear difference in style in the art direction. Sleeping was inspired by the medieval gothic art, which is shown in the sharp details, were as Aladdin was inspired by Al Hirschfeld's curvy details and soft appearances.

As for Rise of the Guardians, I actually think its one of the most visual stunning CGI movies that's not Pixar to come out in a while. It's unfortunate it wasn't animated in 2D, cause I feel it would have been even better, but the shots of the CGI sand were breathtaking. I don't think the character designs translate as well as they do in 2D/in the Art Book, but I think its visually way above Epic.

Dalin "Duckie" Rowell said...

Thank you both for commenting on the article :)



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