This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
The most imaginative section of "Epic" starts with shots of the forest that rings the home of Professor Bomba (voiced by Jason Sudeikis), the inventor dad of the film's heroine, Mary Katherine (Amanda Seyfried). Some leaves and branches are in crisp focus. Others are out-of-focus. The images are so entrancing on their own terms that it takes a while to register the creatures in the out-of-focus parts of the shot, disguising themselves against foliage and bark. Then comes a very long, unbroken shot that prowls across a collage of significant objects: the professor's journals and equations, blueprints and sketches, research photos and files. These clerical objects look both "real" and illustrated; you can see dirt, dust, fingerprints. The imagery may remind film buffs of the opening credits of "To Kill a Mockingbird," which probed the contents of a box that Scout left for Boo Radley.
Before you get excited about "Epic," I should warn you that this sequence isn't representative of the film — not at all. What I've just described are the movie's end credits. They're afterthoughts, designed to keep older children amused while parents help little ones don their shoes and backpacks before tromping our for pizza. But they offer hints of what "Epic" could have been, were it not such a slave to clichés of modern American cartoon-making.
The latest from Blue Sky Studio ("Ice Age," "Rio") is different from whatever Pixar, Disney or any other big animation outfit happens to be offering this year, but not so different that you should kick yourself for skipping it. There's a protagonist grieving over her mother's recent death, and a brilliant but scatterbrained father who loves his child but isn't the strong parental figure she desperately needs. There's a hidden world akin to Alice's Wonderland that the inquisitive heroine explores. There are beleaguered good guys that she joins in a war against bad guys that represent chaos and decay; their leader is a funny despot with a European accent. There's a mythology that will be fulfilled when good guys take a fragile pod on a journey toward a prophesied end. There's a young warrior with whom the heroine forms a flirtatious friendship. There's a tough older warrior who mentors the younger warrior. There are comic sidekicks, and a beautiful forest queen who utters platitudes about the cycles of life and then dies.
The good guys are the Leafmen, tiny forest sprites that look like humans. The bad guys are the Boggans, who look like storybook drawings of goblins or trolls. The sidekicks are two snails that worship the Leafmen and desperately want to be like them, but can't be, because they're snails. Josh Hutcherson of "The Hunger Games" provides the voice of the young warrior, Nod, who's physically gifted but immature; like Seyfried's Mary Katherine, he speaks with the circa-2013 colloquialisms and inflections of pretty much any teenager you'd run into at any mall anywhere in America. There's nothing special about him, or Mary Katherine, or Ronin, the older warrior voiced by Colin Farrell, or Mandrake, the funny-vicious bad guy voiced by Christoph Waltz, or Mug and Grub, the sidekick slugs voiced by Aziz Ansari and Chris O'Dowd. There's nothing special about Queen Tara, who's voiced by singer-actress Beyonce Knowles, or about Knowles' post-credits song, which will get an Oscar nomination anyway because the original song pickings are always slim.