Though some perilous interludes and the onscreen -- albeit mild -- demise of at least one prominent character might make it too scary for the littlest members of the family, director Chris Wedge's pleasant 3-D animated fantasy "Epic" (Fox) provides appropriate viewing for just about everyone else.
Building on a premise that bears comparison with that of Hayao Miyazaki's far superior -- but also much darker -- fable "Spirited Away" (2001), the collaborative script magically transports its heroine to a miniature, previously unobserved, world within nature. Like the more menacing landscape of Miyazaki's film, this Lilliputian cosmos teems with anthropomorphized animals and plants.
Said heroine, 17-year-old Mary Katherine (voice of Amanda Seyfried) -- M.K. for short -- soon discovers that things are as unsettled at this level of existence as they are in the more familiar surroundings that tower over it. The armed champions of growth and life in the forest, known as Leafmen, are locked in battle with the dark forces of decay, the Boggans.
M.K. finds herself drawn into the conflict when the Leafmen's sovereign, Queen Tara (voice of Beyonce Knowles), entrusts her with a mission that could determine its ultimate outcome. In her quest to fulfill this vital charge, M.K. gains the protection of the Leafmen's gallant leader Ronin (voiced by Colin Farrell) but likewise the enmity of the Boggans' hateful commander Mandrake (voiced by Christoph Waltz).
Another of M.K.'s newfound companions is Ronin's protege, youthful warrior Nod (voice of Josh Hutcherson). Though Nod's freewheeling ways make him an initially unreliable ally for his fellow Leafmen, they don't prevent M.K. from falling for him.
With some of its characters drawn from William Joyce's book "The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs" -- Joyce is also credited as one of the film's five scriptwriters -- this cheerful journey into the undergrowth sends innocuous messages about environmental stewardship, teamwork and responsibility. There's also some familial bonding via M.K.'s ultimately appreciative interaction with her stereotypically absent-minded dad, Professor Bomba (voiced by Jason Sudeikis).
Details of the plot might hint at some pantheistic overtones; Queen Tara, for example, is portrayed not only as the Leafmen's liege lady but as the source of their life-giving, and life-restoring, power. Still, she's really more Mother Nature than goddess Gaia. As a whole, the personification of natural elements seems intended to excite children's interest and sympathy rather than to impart any nonscriptural belief.
Though the impact of Wedge's picture falls well short of the promise contained in its overly ambitious -- perhaps ill-advised -- title, it does have its strengths as well as flaws. In particular, some lovely imagery compensates for various hit-or-miss attempts at humor.
The film contains potentially frightening clashes and themes involving death. The Catholic News Service classification is A-I -- general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
John Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.
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