Loosely based on William Joyce's children's book The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs, Epic is the latest film adaptation to take advantage of a long history of narratives deeply rooted in America's conservationist imagination. So from the first scene, I was hoping that Epic would establish its own distinctiveness as not another green movie by approaching its common themes in compelling ways.
There are things about the premise—along with the film's visual animation—that make this a worthwhile trip to the woods. The most endearing image might be of the ingenious if flighty father, Professor Bomba—seen from the perspective of the tiny Leafmen and good bugs for which he's spent his life unsuccessfully searching—barreling into the forest with his microscopic glasses, which are specially designed for investigating a tiny forest world that he believes exists, despite it being naked to the eye. Bomba has long taught his daughter, Mary Katherine, that a war between the forces of good and evil is being waged in the forest. But if we are to see it, we must look closer by getting smaller. It's a commendable motto of humility, and it's also an invitation to inhabit a world fertile with detail, abundantly textured and lit, and luxuriantly vegetative enough to inspire concerns for its preservation. In this way, the film's a success.
One of the story's many conflicts is that Bomba's daughter, the film's teenaged heroine who wishes to be called "MK," not only doesn't believe her father's stories about the forest, but has also grown estranged from him. MK's disbelief and growing indifference stems almost wholly from the broken marriage between her father and late mother. Her mother left Bomba because of his seemingly delusional preoccupation with finding little human soldiers which he said were protecting and preserving the life that animates existence.
As you might expect, Leafmen actually do exist. And, in their miniscule world, a pivotal war is being waged between the life-giving forces of good—the Leafmen—and the decaying forces of evil—the Boggans. Representing the former is the magical Queen of the forest, Tara, and the Leafmen leader, Ronin. Leading the army of disgusting deterioration is Mandrake, who has malevolent plans to dispose of the forest. And so when Queen Tara goes to a field of leaf pods to choose an heir to the throne, her nemesis, Mandrake, seizes the opportunity to have the pod bloom into a darkness that envelops the forest.
Evangelical Christians have a complicated relationship with preserving nature, whether they're suspicious of "earth worship" or championing Wendell Berry. Yet Christianity does have deep roots that are in harmony with the Romantic concern for nature. Common sensibilities like the earth being our home, nature's connectedness, and how our inner nature's kinship with the larger natural world—all of these sentiments can be sensibly grounded in Christian soil. But sometimes the Christian roots have been cut out, deemed unnecessary, even hazardous, toward the goal.