Epic: Avatar on a planet not so far away

By Michele Manelis

The animated feature Epic lets the guys behind Ice Age branch out into a forest fable, writes Michele Manelis

The latest animated 3D offering from Blue Sky Studios, Epic, is based on the 1996 William Joyce novel, The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs, about a magical world in which tiny inhabitants of the forest are threatened by an evil force.

If the premise sounds similar to an earlier eco-themed animated fantasy, 1992's Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, you might refrain from mentioning it to Epic director Chris Wedge. "There will always be comparisons to other movies but that is not one I care for. Epic isn't cute, it's not about humans bulldozing over the forest and chasing out little critters," he says.

"It was an opportunity to go to a place, do an Avatar, and find a world you didn't expect. I wanted to make a big, epic adventure movie."

Wedge won an Oscar for the short film, Bunny, in 1998, and his 2002 Oscar nominated hit, Ice Age, ensured a bright future for Blue Sky Studios (which he co-founded) and led to the Ice Age franchise, Robots, and most recently, the hit animated movie, Rio.

In bringing the characters to life on Epic, Wedge culled an impressive cast including Amanda Seyfried, Colin Farrell, Christoph Walz, Steven Tyler, Chris O'Dowd, Jason Sudeikis, and Beyonce Knowles. Budgeted at US$100 million ($126 million), it's already taken in US$236 million at the international box office

This role as a samurai-like warrior and leader of the Leaf Men is certainly a change of pace for Colin Farrell, who most recently starred in Dead Man Down, and Seven Psychopaths. The single father of two young boys, aged 10 and 3, jumped at the opportunity to join such family friendly fare. "It's lovely to be able to do something the kids can go and see," he says.

"They like Ice Age a lot. And now that I've done my first animated film, it would be typical if they see it and then say, 'Can we watch Ice Age, please?"' he laughs. "But on a serious note about the underlying messages of the film; I love nature, it's exciting for me. The movie is really about so many things, like passion and kindness which is important for kids."

Bringing the humour is Chris O'Dowd (Bridesmaids, Sapphires) and Aziz Asnari (Parks and Recreation) as a slug and a snail, respectively.

"We were there as the comic relief; hopefully that's what we did. I had such a great time on this movie that I've decided from now on, I will only make eco-relatable films," O'Dowd jokes. "I think Epic is a visual masterpiece and has some beautiful ideas about the preservation of nature. I think Chris created a beautiful world, a little like Alice in Wonderland."

There isn't much mystery about movie making these days, and where animation films are concerned, we're all familiar with the image of actors bouncing off the walls in small confined studios in order to infuse energy into their characters.

Wedge says, "Everyone has their process, but the funny thing with Amanda [Seyfried] there was no calisthenics or jumping jacks. The voice came right out of her. We'd have a quick conversation, then, bang, it was there."

For Wedge, this movie has been in the making, or rather in his imagination, for many years.

"I started thinking of this particular world almost a decade ago. I attended an art exhibition of 100-year-old Victorian countryside paintings depicting intricate realms existing in the woods. It's a world hidden right under our noses in the forest," he says. "When I looked at this magnificent world, I thought there had to be a movie here."

In order to find the vibrant imagery and lush landscape, he says, "We worked with a whole spectrum of colour. There's a lot of technical artistry that builds on what we've done in the past at Blue Sky and I think we've put a great deal of focus into making our world look very natural." He enjoys working with 3D technology.

"I want to take the audience into an immersive world. At Blue Sky, we have developed techniques that allow us to put more and more detail into the worlds we create.

"So, for instance, in Ice Age, our first feature, we didn't know if we could finish a film and we designed it very simply. There was a pine tree here and there but we put all the detail into the characters," he explains.

"Making Epic 10 years later, we have a forest filled with foliage and leaves and ferns on the ground that can blow in the wind.

"All that amazing detail gives the story its visual richness that leads you to believe that the action could be happening and that the universe is real."

Wedge's enthusiasm for his art is evident: "My passion for animation began like most kids, watching cartoons on TV. I've been fortunate to make a living out of it."

What: Epic - animated adventure featuring the the voices of Amanda Seyfried, Colin Farrell, Christoph Walz, Steven Tyler, Chris O'Dowd, Jason Sudeikis, and Beyonce Knowles and directed by Chris Wedge, the man behind Ice Age.

When: In cinemas now

- NZ Herald

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