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Good battles evil, with the world at stake, in animated ‘Epic’

dd_030_180_153: M.K. (AmandSeyfried) doesn't understmadcap antics her father Bomb(JasSudeikis) as he searches for hidden world.

dd_030_180_153: M.K. (Amanda Seyfried) doesn't understand the madcap antics of her father, Bomba (Jason Sudeikis), as he searches for a hidden world.

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‘EPIC’ ★★½

With the voices of:

Ronin Colin Farrell

Nod Josh Hutcherson

M.K. Amanda Seyfried

Bomba Jason Sudeikis

Mandrake Christoph Waltz

Queen Tara Beyonce

Grub Chris O’Dowd

Bufo Pitbull

Mub Aziz Ansari

20th Century Fox presents an animated film directed by Chris Wedge. Written by James V. Hart, William Joyce, Daniel Shere, Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, based on stories by William Joyce. Running time: 100 minutes. Rated PG (for
mild action, some scary images and brief rude language). Opening Friday at local theaters.

Updated: June 25, 2013 6:06AM

Little kids don’t care if animated movie characters are voiced by world-famous celebrities or unknown artists.

Heck, if you’re little enough, you believe the animated characters are real. As my then 5-year-old nephew once asked me when I returned from covering the Oscars, “Did you meet Buzz Lightyear?”

For the grown-ups, though, the dominance of familiar voices throughout an animated adventure is a double-edged sword. If we know the cast before the movie, we’re picturing the actors in a studio, delivering their lines. If we DON’T know the cast list, we’re distracted by the guessing game of figuring out just who’s voicing the evil queen or the dashing prince or the wisecracking comic relief.

That’s especially true in the 3-D “Epic,” a tale of good vs. evil forces battling over the fate of the natural world, directed by Chris Wedge (“Ice Age,” “Robots”). Should it matter we see Christoph Waltz every time the snarling villain Mandrake appears? Or that it’s so obviously Beyonce voicing the kindly Queen Tara?

Maybe not, but the reality is, I was often distracted by the voice-acting in “Epic” — especially Beyonce’s too-gentle and mannered line readings, and the great Waltz over-Waltzifying his role, as if imitating himself on a particularly meta-sketch on “Saturday Night Live.” It took me out of the story as I pictured the stars behind the animated characters.

Not a good thing.

But even if President Obama and Rush Limbaugh were voicing characters in “Epic,” there’s no denying the lush, often breathtaking visuals of the world within our world — a forest populated by tiny Leaf Men who ride hummingbirds and do battle with an equally minuscule army of nasty creatures known as Boggans. A world in which a mouse towers over the little people like a ferocious bear. A world in which regular humans are known as “Stompers,” comically clumsy giants who clomp around in slow motion, utterly clueless to the world around their feet.

One semi-exception to the rule is Professor Bomba (Jason Sudeikis), who lives in a ramshackle house deep in the forest, puttering about and mumbling incoherently as he collects data on the secret world of the woods. Granted, he’s never actually SEEN any of these creatures and his obsession ruined his marriage and estranged him from his now-teenage daughter, Mary Katherine (Amanda Seyfried), who shows up at his door after her mother has passed away.

Poor M.K. Her room has been left in a time warp, as if she’s still 10 years old. Her father is incapable of communicating with her. She’s there less than a week when she realizes the situation is hopeless and she might as well just leave.

Meanwhile in the woods, Leaf Man warrior Ronin (Colin Farrell) has his hands full, what with denying his true feelings for Queen Tara, trying to mentor his dead best friend’s rebellious young warrior Nod (Josh Hutcherson), and doing battle with Mandrake, who is intent on upsetting the balance of nature and destroying the forest, because apparently every fourth animated movie out of Hollywood has to have an underlying message about the circle of life and respecting the eco-system and saving the planet. (See “The Lorax,” “Cars 2,” “Wall-E,” “Over the Hedge,” “Happy Feet,” “Finding Nemo,” “FernGully: The Last Rainforest.”)

While never losing its visual dazzle-factor, “Epic” keeps returning to overly familiar themes and characters, from the lone wolf teen who learns to appreciate the value of teamwork to the goofy-looking, wisecracking comic relief to the emotional punchlines that sound great even if they’re not entirely true, e.g., “No one is ever alone!”

This is a borderline call. If you’re looking at a rainy Memorial Day weekend, and the kids are bouncing off the walls, “Epic” is a viable option. Otherwise, it’s got “wait for it on video” written all over it.

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