Epic new kids’ film packs big ideas into small tale

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AS an online petition objecting to Disney’s misguided revamp of Brave’s Princess Merida picks up signatures by the thousand (if you haven’t seen it, Merida is now slimmer, she’s wearing make-up, her neck-line is lowered and instead of a bow and arrow she has sparkles on her dress), I confess I feel heartened at the first images of the heroine of the new animated feature, Epic.

Mary Katherine is slender still, but there’s not a trace of pink in sight. There are no sparkles either. Instead, she’s wearing a T-shirt, a miniskirt with leggings beneath and a chunky pair of boots. For this alone, I feel grateful to director Chris Wedge, producer and co-founder of Blue Sky Studios, the people behind previous animated features including Ice Age (2002), Robots (2005) and Rio (2011).

Set in a miniature, hidden forest world, Epic tells the story of Mary Katherine’s struggle to reconnect with her father, against a backdrop of a battle between forces of good and evil over the future of the forest in a miniaturised world into which Mary Katherine finds herself magically transported. With a stellar cast including Christoph Waltz, Beyoncé and Amanda Seyfried (voicing Mary Katherine), it’s a coming-of-age story with an eco-message not dissimilar to James Cameron’s Avatar.

The idea for Epic first emerged for Wedge back in 1998, when he saw an exhibition of paintings that depicted intricate, hidden realms existing in forests. Tapping into stories of elves and fairies and classic children’s books such as The Borrowers, Wedge knew that digital animation would be a perfect way to create that kind of alternate universe.

“When I think about animation I always start with a place,” Wedge says. “I start with a world and it’s got to be a world which is both familiar and interesting and alien to us.” He explains that the surroundings of Blue Sky Studios, the lush forest of Greenwich, Connecticut, were part of his inspiration too.

“There’s forest all around our studio, and just thinking about how it would look from that tiny person’s perspective makes it a fantastic, alien world. I know there is a legacy of ideas like this and visual exploration of it, and I think that the notion that there could be a civilisation out there, hidden to us that involves itself with all manner of ceremony and trouble and conflict, you know, you could tell a gigantic story in a relatively small piece of forest.”

Wedge’s ambition for his story meant that at first he imagined it as an ensemble piece, rather than focusing on one particular character, but M.K. (the name she prefers) won through. More than that, she gave Wedge an opportunity to craft a story based on her willingness and ability to make heroic choices and do heroic things.

“The point of the story isn’t that she becomes like a leafman,” he says, “learning how to wield a sword or ride a hummingbird, Mary Katherine has a much more emotionally-centred objective.” Having been estranged, M.K. wants to know her father, Professor Bomba. She wants to do what Wedge says all children want to do – to understand her dad not just as her parent, but as “a contemporary”.

If Ice Age was about the elasticity of family and altruism as a positive evolutionary trait and Robots was about the haves and have-nots, Epic allowed Wedge to work again with long-time collaborator, William Joyce (Wedge calls him a “kindred spirit”) who had written a children’s book, The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs back in 2000. It included samurai-like warriors, the Leafmen, who were involved in a battle being waged between the forces of life and the forces of decay.

Developing an original story with some influences from Joyce gave Wedge the chance to indulge in what he describes as one of his two favourite bits of the animation process: thinking ideas up in the first place. His other preferred part of the process is doing the post-production when it’s all finished. The bit in the middle, he says, is “rather difficult and back-breaking”.

The cast he’s managed to assemble meant that he could find voices for his characters which are less known than some, allowing his characters to become entities in their own rights. Even someone as successful as Beyoncé is much less known for her speaking voice than her singing.

“When I heard her speaking voice I knew that it had a very special quality,” says Wedge. “It sounds much older than she is. It has this kind of stature, the kind of thing Morgan Freeman’s voice gives you, but in a beautiful, melodic woman’s voice. I was flabbergasted when I first heard it – she has such a broad harmonic and expressive range.”

With Christoph Waltz, two-time Oscar winner, who plays villain, Mandrake, Wedge says what the actor brought to the process far exceeded his voice.

“Let me put it this way,” Wedge says, “he’s the only voice actor who’s ever asked for a boom operator so that he could move around the room. He wanted to be able to pace around. Everyone else just stands in front of the microphone.” He laughs. “He demands that you pay attention. He insists that you be very present with him. It was electrifying and terrifying but extremely satisfying.”

• Epic is in cinemas from 22 May.