(2013) Animated Feature (20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Amanda Seyfried, Colin Farrell, Josh Hutcherson, Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis, Aziz Ansari, Steven Tyler, Beyonce Knowles, Pitbull, Blake Anderson, Judah Friedlander, Chris O’Dowd, Dan Green, Allison Bills, John DiMaggio, Troy Evans, Kelly Keaton, Malikha Mallette. Directed by Chris Wedge
The natural world is nothing like what we think it is. Yes, there are flora and fauna, rocks and trees and water but there are also tiny little creatures who are waging a war for the very survival of the forest. Don’t believe me?
Dr. Bomba (Sudeikis) does. He’s been searching the forest outside his home for years, convinced that these creatures exist. He’s managed to find some artifacts of them but thus far, no concrete proof of their existence. His obsession cost him his standing in the scientific community and eventually, his family.
His ex-wife has recently passed away and his estranged daughter Mary Katherine (Seyfried) has come to live with him. She’s a rebellious teen now however, mourning her mother and wishing to go by the name MK. As in MK Ultra, maybe. Anywho, she trusts her distracted dad about as far as she could throw him – although he’s kind of scrawny and she’s kind of tough sot that could be a considerable distance.
When she arrives she’s not sure of what’s going to happen but the worst essentially does – she discovers dear old dad hasn’t changed any and the same craziness that drove her mother out is still present and accounted for, thank you. She desperately needs to talk things out with him but every time she tries to get him to sit down, one of his camera sensors starts beeping and off he goes, with an outlandish helmet that Wayne Szalinski of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids would probably find stylish.
She means to leave and make her own way but on her way out the door her dad’s (and her childhood pet) Ozzie, a three legged dog, gets out and MK goes out into the woods to find him. What she finds is something else entirely.
You see, her dad was right – there are tiny little creatures battling it out in the woods. On the side of good are the Leaf Men, valiant and noble warriors who ride hummingbirds, are able to leap tremendous distances and insure the safety and tranquility of the woods. They are ruled over (and are charged to protect) Queen Tara (Knowles) who that very day as it so happens is partaking in a ceremony that will transfer her powers to a new heir who is yet to be chosen.
The evil Boggans don’t want that to happen. They are ruled over by the nefarious Mandrake (Waltz) whose minions are charged with spreading rot and decay, destroying the green woods forever. Tara keeps them at bay, able to regenerate any damage they do. However, Mandrake has figured out a plan to stop her from passing on her powers, which would allow he and his Boggans to take things over and turn the woods into a lovely dead stretch of rotted vegetation.
Tara seems to think there isn’t much of a threat, much to the consternation of Ronin (Farrell), her captain of the guards, or leader of the Leaf Men. He’s in charge of her security and he knows the Boggans are up to something. Of course nobody listens to him, particularly Nod (Hutcherson), the reckless young man who is the son of Ronin’s best friend who was killed in battle. Ronin has raised Nod as his own, which clearly shows it must suck to be his kid. In any case, Nod chafes under Ronin’s rough discipline and takes a powder, leaving the Leaf Men.
They should have listened. The Boggans interrupt the ceremony and send everyone scurrying in all directions. Tara, alone and desperate, is forced to transfer all her powers into a seed pod as she lays dying on the forest floor. MK (remember her?), wandering out on the forest looking for Ozzie, stumbles onto the dying Tara instead. Tara hands her the pod which magically shrinks MK down to Leaf Man size. Before the Boggans can get there, Ronin arrives in time for the Queen to die in his arms, turning into mulch and scattering to the four winds as she passes. At least, it would be mulch if mulch was sparkly.
This is a lot of plot to take in and we’re talking only the first 20 minutes or so here. The rest of the movie is spent with the small group of Leaf Men – Ronin, MK, Nod and the caretakers of the pod – slug Mub (Ansari) and snail Grub (O’Dowd) – and their attempts to get the pod from point A to point B so it can be in the proper place when the moon is at its height and, well, yadda yadda yadda. Mub and Grub provide comic relief – Mub a kind of ladies man slug, and Grub who desperately yearns to be a Leaf Man. They are neither cute enough to be kiddy favorites. I don’t care how funny the voice actors are, kids are just not going to warm up to slugs and snails. Are you listening, makers of Turbo?
Wedge, who had a hand in Ice Age and Robots, is given a beautiful palette to work with. The animated forest is realistic and beautiful. However, the trailer made the place look incredible, with small cities and fairy-like creatures turning up under every flower and twig. The finished film shows some of that but those scenes are few and far between. The sense of wonder that the trailer had is missing from the final film and how ironic is that?
Kids aren’t going to care much that there are huge lapses in internal logic. For example, the Leaf Men and Boggans are said to be too small for the human eye to see but they are large enough to ride hummingbirds and bats. They are also moving too fast for us to see or hear but what happens when they’re sleeping?
This is the kind of movie that tries to look superficially green without offending conservative families. The message is at least on the surface about being a caretaker to the planet which is admirable but then the buck is passed. It’s not OUR responsibility to care for the planet – it’s these little Leaf Men. Carry on with your carbon footprint kiddies, you’re off the hook (and by the way, the rot that the Leaf Men are so afraid of is actually beneficial for the forest, acting as fertilizer, mulch and clearing space to allow things to grow). At least The Lorax sent a message that it is our personal responsibility to take charge of our own behavior in regards to the environment.
This is a movie trying to offend nobody and winds up being offensive because of it. I wish the filmmakers had the courage of their convictions but I can’t imagine Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch, sending out an eco-friendly kid-film under any circumstances so perhaps we can’t blame them overly much. We can blame them for a convoluted plot, however and an over-abundance of characters who flit in and out of the movie, many of which without any real need to be there.
The movie liberally borrows from too many other movies. There’s a bit of Neverending Story here, a bit of The Secret of NIMH there, a little more The Secret World of Arrietty over there. There’s even a bit of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (there are pod races and a bullfrog with more than a little resemblance to Jabba the Hut). This is a mish mash that will probably do good business (at least until Monsters University opens) but is a big disappointing. The very young might be enchanted by some of the beautiful visuals but they aren’t sustained long and it turns into more fluff than substance. Even a kid can recognize a bad movie when they see it.
REASONS TO GO: Some lush animation. Farrell’s Ronin is terrific.
REASONS TO STAY: Disappointing overall; lacks a sense of wonder. Suffers from Green Hippie disease.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a couple of watered down action sequences which shouldn’t be too much for the kiddies, mild bad language and a scary image or two.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first film produced by Blue Sky Animation Studios to feature a female protagonist and the first animated feature overall from Fox to do so since Anastasia in 1997.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100; I’d call them mildly positive reviews overall.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Secret of NIMH
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Scream 3