A Hollywood summer that blasted off with Iron Man 3 reaches an apex this holiday weekend. I’ve seen 2/3 of the product (err, films) so let’s go to the movies.
This is the time of the year for epic visions, and so we have Epic. This was rather epic for me, as it was the first commercial release I took my four-year-old daughter to see in a multiplex, following a revival screening of Hayao Miyazaki’s classic Castle in the Sky (1986) earlier this spring. My self-described “Ghibli Girl,” who loves all those movies, found Epic lightly amusing, and so did I.
Epic hails from Blue Sky Studios, which, if Pixar is the Bentley of family films, is the clown car, producing the hit Ice Age comedies and Rio. They’re peppy and unpretentious. As its title implies, Epic is weightier, a little anyway. From Ice Age director and Blue Sky co-founder Chris Wedge, it’s an adaptation of a William Joyce book, which Wedge deemed “quaint,” and overhauled into its present hellzapoppin form. Wedge’s hedges are understandable, given the “epic” fail of last year’s Joyce-based Rise of the Guardians, which sank DreamWorks Animation’s bottom line. I’ve not read Joyce’s book (he’s credited as production designer) but I suspect Epic‘s pleasing qualities are his, as Wedge whips the rest of it into a familiar frenzy, which will you remind you of A Bug’s Life, Antz, and other arboreal adventures.
Let us deal as expeditiously as possible with Epic‘s underlying mythology, which has the ring of Avatar about it, too. We are in the deep forest, in another dimension, where Queen Tara (voiced by Beyonce Knowles) rules wisely over the peaceable denizens. Protecting the good creatures of the realm are the Leafmen, warriors led by Ronin (Colin Farrell). Protecting from what, you ask? That would be the creepy Boggans, purveyors of rot and decay commanded by Mandrake (Christoph Waltz). The Boggans plan to disrupt a sacred ceremony, headed by Tara, that will preserve the forest; what no one counts on is disruption by the clumsy humans who occasionally clomp through the lair. Plucky M.K. (Amanda Seyfried), who can’t believe that her preoccupied professor father (Jason Sudeikis) has wasted his career tracking tiny beings only he believes in, is literally sucked into the gathering war between the Leafmen and the Boggans, and given passage through their strange world by Nod (Josh Hutcherson), Ronin’s rebel nephew. Keep an ear out for Pitbull, as a toad, and Steven Tyler, as a caterpillar.
“Many leaves, one tree,” says Ronin, sagely, of the forest ecosystem. In practice, though, it doesn’t work out that way in Epic. Why are the frogs and bats, which perform useful ecological functions, allied with the Boggans, while the environmentally useless snail (Chris O’Dowd) and slug (Aziz Ansari) side with Tara and the Leafmen and get all the funny lines? You’d last about ten minutes in a dark forest without bug-munching bats to pick up the slack from your insect repellent. Shouldn’t human encroachment–the professor has all kinds of photographic junk stashed in the forest–be the villain? Nature and the Boggans are just running their course, after all. And while I’m at it, why is Colin Farrell, a handsome actor, voicing a character who looks like a half-baked potato? It’s hard to embrace a warrior who looks like old produce.
Details, details. This was also Larissa’s first 3D movie, and I’m pleased to report that her wearing the toddler-sized glasses didn’t result in an aneurysm. There are some lovely pictorial effects, notably Tara’s being transported to her date with destiny via a hummingbird-flown bower (which, coincidentally, is how Beyonce travels through Brooklyn, swear) and the pretty watery places in the forest. We oohed and aahed at flowers opening up right before our eyes, and giggled at the movie’s funniest setpiece, where the miniaturized M.K. and her Leafmen friends break into dad’s lab and have to skirt his one-eyed, three-legged dog, among other perils of topsy-turvy domestic life. Too much of it, however, is the usual breakneck adventure stuff, attractively rendered, and scored (by Danny Elfman), but with familiar emotional beats as everyone learns to open their hearts, etc. New environment, same old. Not bad, reasonably entertaining for families, particularly here in the Northeast tundra–just not Epic.
A summer of sequels is a sequel to summer 2009, with new installments of Star Trek and The Hangover, which I liked so much I reviewed it twice. But the buzz became buzzkill the second time around, and the bad reviews scared me away from The Hangover Part II. It still made big bucks, despite flouting the cardinal rules of followups, like not setting them in foreign countries. Yet the damage was done. The Hangover Part III arrives not with excitement nor anticipation; rather, with the cinematic equivalent of hate-watching, as audiences ask, “How badly is this one gonna suck?”
The answer: Not as badly as II, which I did catch on HBO, and, yes, it was as lousy as all that, one of the worst sequels since Beverly Hills Cop II a generation ago. That said, two days after seeing it, in a case of life imitating, err, art, my recall is hazy. On the plus side, well, it’s short (100 minutes), and it’s not in 3D. On the minus, it has a definite sedative quality, with the R-rated outrageousness relegated to the beginning and the end credits sequence. The rest is a slack chase comedy, centered, on that rascal Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong). Remember how we laughed and laughed at Mr. Chow when he was a second banana four years ago? Escaped from a Bangkok prison and running afoul of the guys, who are trying to bring Alan (Zach Galifianakis) to rehab in the vicinity of Vegas the character is now a co-lead, and earns nary a laugh. Jeong at least tries hard, if too hard; his comrades in comic crime, obliged to steal gold from a kingpin (John Goodman, wasted), define the term “going through the motions,” with Sexiest Oscar Nominee Bradley Cooper clearly envious of Justin Bartha’s usual non-involvement in the central action. The movie perks up for a few minutes when Alan begins a furtive romance with a pawn store owner (the charming Melissa McCarthy), then goes back to sleep, joining its audience. The Vegas caper, involving wall-scaling and skydiving, is mildly diverting, if peripheral. Face it: we’ve come for gross-our bromance, not Ocean’s 14.
A movie with the frivolity of a court-ordered appearance, The Hangover Part III shows the wisdom of stopping at one. With worthier competition at the movies, Beyond the Candelabra on HBO, and Arrested Development on Netflix, best to wait for it next Memorial Day weekend–on cable.