June 11, 2013

The inspiration for Epic by Bluesky and some of my thoughts on Epic

This past week I saw Epic; the new animated offering from Blue Sky Studios. I think it's a great idea to support animation (and all film) studios by seeing and discussing their work. I personally want to know who is making the films I watch and what inspired the artists who made them.
I can tell that the crew that worked on Epic feels that the film really lives up to it's name. When I watched Epic it felt like a passion project that was in the works for a long time. After doing some research I learned that was pretty much the case. Chris Wedge and Bill Joyce, the two Oscar-winning directors, were originally inspired to make what became Epic for 15 years before it was completed. It underwent numerous iterations over those 15 years. Chris Wedge is a director, producer, a voice actor, a classically trained animator with extensive experience in stop-motion animation as well as a Masters degree in computer graphics from Ohio State University. He has been with Blue Sky since it's inception in 1986. Wedge directed Bunny, a short film that won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1998. I remember being shown that film for the first time by my animation professor when I was still a student attending Sheridan College. Bill Joyce is an author, illustrator, and film maker. Joyce won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film with Brandon Oldenburg for The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore, (A gorgeous short film, watch it!!)
The original inspiration for the film was Victorian Fairy Paintings, seen at The Frick Collection in New York in 1998. Victorian Fairy paintings were critically and commercially popular during the nineteenth century. The Frick Collection website says that "Fairy painting brought together many opposing elements in the collective psyche and artistic sensibility of the time; rich subject matter, an escape from the grim elements of an industrial society, an indulgence of new attitudes towards sex, a passion for the unknown, and a denial of the exactitude of photography.

Here are some examples of Victorian Paintings:

Artist: Richard Dadd
Painting: The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke - 1855-64 - A very complex image. The "feller" is about to hew a hazelnut to provide the queen of the fairies, Mab, with a new chariot.
Artist: Richard Dadd
Detail of The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke - Onlookers and the as of yet uncracked nut
Artist: Richard Dadd
Detail of The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke - Queen of the fairies Mab with her rival monarchs Oberon and Titania
Artist: John Anster Fitzgerald
Painting: Fairy Hordes Attacking A Bat

Artist: John Anster Fitzgerald
Painting: The Realms of Fairydom

Sir Joseph Noël Paton
Sir Joseph Noël Paton

The inspiration material is lush and fascinating. The final product; Epic, is beautiful and a breath of fresh air. The characters were well-realised and the world was a wonderful place to inhibit.

I thought that the characters in Epic were well developed and I enjoyed watching the relationships they had with each other change and grow. Two of the main characters, Mary Katherine (MK) and Nod are yound adults and they act like it. Mary Katherine goes by "MK" now since her full name is too young and dorky for her. I liked watching the affection between them grow as well as the strengthening relationship between MK and her eccentric dad, Professor Bomba. I really enjoyed that at the end of the film the connection between the tiny world and the big world of "stompers" was not lost; MK gets to keep chatting with her new friends. It felt a little bit bittersweet as the full size version of MK and Nod can never "be together" and the small forest characters and the big stompers will have a screen or a magnifying glass between them. But all the same it was a unique twist and a lovely ending.

There were a few interesting morals and theories revealed by Epic and I didn't feel that any of these were pressed upon the viewer too much. The two big ones are that "just because you haven't seen something, doesn't mean it's not there", and the philosophy of "many leaves, one tree".

I highly enjoyed the fantastical and natural world of plants, little creatures and animals. The hummingbirds were loyal and friendly aids to the leaf men. The sight of the little forest people riding around on hummingbirds is pretty awesome. And there was a whole cast of fastastical flower and plant people that were super charming.

I wasn't personally a fan of the voice acting my Beyonce. She has a gorgeous voice, but her acting and dialogue seemed stilted and I just wasn't crazy about her character. She didn't seem particularly "queenly" or royal to me. The romance between her and Ronin was peculiar, obvious and unexplained. I couldn't help but feel like I was being sold a Beyonce product. The song by Nim Galuu, voiced by Steven Tyler was also an oddity. The song sounded good, but the fact that the film was lead to a point where a Wizard of Oz-like showman who didn't add a heck of a lot to the plot or pacing of the film was given the opportunity to break into song was a cheesey animated film trope.

One of the things I did find strange about Epic was the idea that renewal and growth is "good" and decay and rot is "evil", seemingly just because. Truly, forests need rot and decay. It's simply a part of the natural life cycle. In a forest, rot isn't a sign of a healthy tree. But trees eventually die and rotting and decay is simply part of the life cycle of a tree. Ususally a number of factors will end the life of tree. Any combination of injury, drought stress, followed by diesease, rot, root dieback, perhaps a lightening strike, and insect infestation is potentially a cause for the death of a tree when it will then become a snag. A snag is a standing dead tree. Over time the tree will decompose making way for new growth. As the snag slowly breaks down it will provide habitate, cover and food for wildlife and in turn, animals, insects and fungi help break down a tree. As this process occurs, the snag will return nutrients to the soil providing health for new trees. So decay is necessary.

At the end of the film the pod that is chosen by Queen Tara is brought to Moonhaven where it has been decreed that it must sprout and under the full moon so that a new heir to the forest may be chosen/revealed. The villain Mandrake however wants the pod to bloom in darkness so that it will bloom as an evil rotting creature so that no more growth can occur in the forest. I think a clever potential ending to the film would have been for the pod to blood in semi-darkness and result in an heir that represents growth and decay. That would represent balance for the forest.
Cartoonbrew wrote of Epic after it hit theaters and titled it's post "Epic" Box Office Plumments in U.S., Slow Abroad". The tone of and very title of that article were inherently negative, indicating that the box office profits are a clear indication of success or failure. The article has nothing to say of the good points of the film nor the artists who worked on it. It jumps right on it's monetary shortcomings and compares it to the returns of previous Blue Sky films as well as other recent animated films and their week two drop rates. I think that actually seeing the movie is a good first step if you want to talk about the film. Studios and their artists need the support of movie going audiences - and not just to get your money, but so that a discussion can be had.

For the record, Cartoonbrew did have a talkback post for Epic. However that post was not particularly positive either.

I can't wait to see what Blue Sky comes up with in the future. There are obviously a lot of passionate artists working there who have a love for the medium of animation and story. Rio is my favorite Blue Sky film to date and I'm actually excited about a sequel to that when often I'm just flat out not into sequels. Nigel was a huge standout and I would love to see more of the fantastic characters from Rio as well as in future stories by Blue Sky.

A few links:

Richard Dadd's Master Stroke - a fascinating read about a wonderful artist who fell mentally while touring the Mediterranean in the early 1840's

Checking out Blue Sky's New Connecticut Studio

Chris Wedge and Bill Joyce talk Epic - a fun and chatty interview of the two directors

Book Review: The Art of Epic

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