‘Epic’ Review: Moments of Delight Pep Up a Crushingly Familiar Story

'Epic' Review: Moments of Delight Pep Up a Crushingly Familiar Story

This pre-school "Avatar" offers the occasional surprise, but even little kids will feel déjà vu from the stock characters and situations

When everything around you is stultifyingly familiar, it's the tiny variations that catch your attention. And in “Epic,” when the filmmakers take little detours from the reluctant-warrior-accepts-his/her-destiny plot, it brings some desperately needed livening up to what otherwise feels like a crushingly by-the-numbers kid saga.

Sullen teen M.K. (voiced by Amanda Seyfried) heads out to the woods to live with her scientist father Professor Bomba (Jason Sudeikis) following the death of her mother. M.K.'s parents split over her father’s obsession that the woods are filled with tiny people who have managed to elude being noticed by human beings.

Turns out, he’s right, and M.K.’s arrival happens to coincide with a major once-a-century event: When there’s a full moon on the summer solstice, Queen Tara (Beyoncé Knowles) selects a bud in which she will imbue her spirit and from which will grow a new queen. Out to stop this transition of power from happening are the evil Boggans, led by Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), who wants to destroy the forest with blight and rot. (Rot being one of the things that helps a forest stay green, but "Epic" isn't particularly interested in botany.)

Mandrake attacks the ceremony, and the dying queen passes the bud along to M.K. (who has followed her father’s three-legged pug into the woods) for safekeeping; clasping the bud in her hands makes M.K. shrink to the size of the tiny forest denizens, and it’s up to warrior Leafmen Ronin (Colin Farrell) and Nod (Josh Hutcherson) to make sure the bud blooms under a full moon, after which M.K. will presumably be able to return home.

Will it surprise you to learn that Nod is a sassy teen boy with an attitude who must learn to use his abilities for the greater good? Or that M.K.'s experiences in the woods help her mend her fractured relationship with her dad? Or that M.K. and Nod fall for each other in a way that suggests "Avatar" for pre-schoolers? Or that two wisecracking gastropods (Chris O’Dowd and Aziz Ansari) are along to provide comic relief?

Anyone over the age of 9 can probably close their eyes and figure out every plot beat of "Epic," but the movie does toss in enough smart ideas to elevate it above "Rio" or the dreadful "Ice Age" series, previous products of this film’s makers. For one thing, the women aren't just here to be rescued — the queen runs the show (even if the character design makes her look like Barbie's black friend) and M.K. plays a key role in the story. And that story is, essentially, a balance between the feminine (nurturing and regrowth) and the masculine (battle and conquest) that we don't often see in kid movies.

O'Dowd and Ansari crack wise enough to make you forgive the fact that their characters are the umpteenth version of Timon and Pumbaa from "The Lion King," and the script (by James V. Hart, William Joyce, Daniel Shere, Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember) has fun with M.K. discovering that, at her new size, previously innocuous things like mice and static electricity bring a whole new level of danger.

Kudos to "Epic," incidentally, for having a scene where Nod and M.K. zap each other with static electricity and then allowing that moment to be an amusing stand-alone and not a set-up for some big third-act climactic moment where static electricity saves the day. So few movies allow themselves to breathe enough to just let a gag be a gag and not part of the Rube Goldberg set-up for the finale.

"Epic" does get a lot out of its sylvan setting, with characters dressed as flowers and evil bugs disguising themselves as bark, and it keeps throwing flying sequences at us, since that's become the safe fall-back for any 3-D adventure. You've danced this dance before, but you may find yourself enchanted by the new steps that have been added here and there.