Epic Blu-ray Review: Heart of Darkness

Dark animated fantasy demands parental attention to PG rating.
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I don’t ever pay attention to MPAA ratings on animated films, because why bother? After decades of reliably mild animated projects, punctuated only by very rare aberrations such as The Black Cauldron and Legend of the Guardians, the average consumer expects a certain level of saccharine status quo in our talking animal feature films, making ratings meaningless. The trailers for Epic did nothing to dispel that notion, introducing a magical forest world with tiny humans blissfully riding hummingbirds and interacting with comical snails. Big mistake, marketing department. If you have younger viewers, this is one case where you need to pay attention to the PG rating, because this film gets dark and veers into full-blown war in its final act. It’s no 300 by any means, but if you’re looking for a feel-good all ages family film this is not the one. ┬áPut another way: my 7-year-old daughter saw the film in theaters and is still disturbed enough about the experience that she has a total aversion to watching it again on Blu-ray.

The film starts off innocuously enough with a young woman named M.K. travelling to visit her eccentric father at his home in the country. He’s a seemingly crazy inventor who is wholly dedicated to exposing the existence of a race of mouse-sized forest folk called Leafmen, sacrificing all personal relationships to continue his quixotic quest. His daughter longs to make a connection to her father, but even the proximity of temporarily staying in his home yields little results. A series of events lead to her being shrunk down to Leafman size, where she is tasked by the dying Leafman queen to protect a magical seed and assist her warriors in their battle against the evil Boggans. There’s an environmental awareness angle to the story, with the Boggans determined to destroy the fragile ecosystem with blight while the tree-hugger Leafmen battle their evil polluting ways. And battle they do, in escalating skirmishes that lead into brutal war.

Joining M.K. on her adventure are an assortment of Leafmen and acolytes who bear startling similarity to classic Star Wars characters, with a young, impulsive Luke Skywalker-type love interest named Nod, his grizzled squad leader/Jedi master named Ronin, and their dopey slug and snail sidekicks along for the ride seemingly just for R2-D2/C3PO comic relief. Their Sith-like foe is the ruthless and entirely evil leader of the Boggans, a character drawn and animated with such menace that he’ll frighten the youngest tots before uttering his first glowering word. The Boggan land is a dark, barren and foreboding place, matched only by their cruel, twisted hearts. The totality of the darkness creates an unsettling experience, made more so by the inevitable war between good and evil. There’s no surprise about the outcome of either the war or M.K’s relationship with her father, but the uneasy path the story takes to get there makes for an adventure best left for mature viewers.

To its benefit, the animated forest world looks spectacular, with intricate and lush Leafman settings that reveal just how far Blue Sky has come from the sparse frozen landscapes of their ongoing Ice Age franchise. This is a world you will want to explore, especially in this immaculately detailed hi-def Blu-ray presentation, even if its characters don’t hold much interest. The character designs are fairly bland, with only the comical if one-dimensional slug and snail sidekicks offering any memorable artistry. Sound design is top-notch, with immersive environmental effects and thunderous battle sequences conveyed with aplomb via DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio.

The Blu-ray disc is stuffed with bonus features including extensive behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with cast and crew, extra content for the Epic mobile coloring app, and a few odd featurettes that are like Discovery Channel material, exploring the science of the real-life flora and fauna portrayed in the film as well as the physics of life as a 2-inch creature. The Blu-ray combo pack also includes a DVD and digital copy.

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