The James Clayton Column: Epic little greatness and miniature heroes

As DreamWorks' Epic arrives in the UK, James thinks back to other movies where their characters are shrunk to miniscule size...

You can do a lot with little. A little can go a long, long way. Anyone who’s ever tasted wasabi knows this to be true, but I’m not here to serve you sushi – I’m here to discuss cinema and size up the issue of size and the beauty of little things on the big screen.

I’m moved to do so as cinemas show Epic – the fresh animated family-friendly adventure film from Blue Sky Studios. There’s irony in the title as the movie – an adaptation of William Joyce’s book The Leaf Men And The Brave Good Bugs – is actually about miniscule warriors who live in a forest. A teenage girl gets shrunken by a glowing leaf and, thus, finds herself in the midst of a woodland battle between the good Leaf-Men and the evil Boggans.

The synopsis tells of a story that’s epic in scale but played out by teeny-tiny people. If you, a fully-formed real human being, were to enter the frame to observe the action you’ be watching miniaturised warfare. You’d be a giant spectator to small stuff sweating about small stuff that you could effortlessly sweep away with one swish of a broom. When Epic is re-released in 4D interactive format in the far, far future you may be able to do that. For now though, sit back, immerse yourself in the rescaled world and enjoy watching little forest folk fight giant battles.

Coming into Epic, I’m reminded of other movies that reconfigure size to highly-entertaining effect such as Honey! I Shrunk The Kids, Fantastic Voyage and The Incredible Shrinking Man. There’s a lot of fun in the idea of shrinking people, and those older films run through the exhilarating possibilities or prospective scenarios that spin off from the notion.

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The safest domestic situations become settings of tremendous danger in Honey, I Shrunk The Kids and The Incredible Shrinking Man as physical relation to the environment is radically altered. Previously harmless insects like bees, ants and spiders suddenly become gargantuan monstrosities of Godzilla proportions. On the plus side, you can now wield what was once a modest pin like a broadsword so the humbling experience of being shrunken is simultaneously a shot at living out high adventure fantasies. A toy sailboat floating on the Central Park reservoir is, from Stuart Little’s perspective, an epic voyage across a perilous sea.

Moving to the molecular levels of Fantastic Voyage and Innerspace (the former’s 80s descendant) you find further exhilarating possibilities. Reduced to one micrometre and backed with scientific equipment and knowledge you can experience the anatomical wonders of the human body from within and fully appreciate the inaccessible mystery world inside us all. It’s both an awesome odyssey of discovery and a source of hilarious body comedy material, as the aforementioned Richard Donner and Joe Dante films show.

I think I’d rather ride blood cell rapids through an arteriovenous fistula than traipse around the grass forest combats of Epic, Thumbelina, A Bug’s Life and Antz, but that’s just me, and my penchant for body horror. Regardless, the point is that it would be amazing if you were miniaturised by an electro-shrink ray and these assorted films celebrate the premise and allow audiences to access the spectacular dream.

These flicks also reinforce the old adage that small is beautiful and by no means meek. I don’t wish to dismiss the simultaneous truth that ‘big is beautiful’ (because it is, and King Kong and Godzilla stand tall as proof) but I want to take a moment to pay tribute to miniature heroes and itty-bitty things that make a big impact on the big screen.

As an undersized adventure tale, Epic evokes the same spirit underscoring Toy Story and that spirit is the spirit of play time. In their intricate tininess they tap into nostalgia for childhood times when we used to make whole worlds in our bedrooms and backyards. Empowered by imagination and handfuls of action figures, model figurines, building blocks and other assorted toys we became masters of our own universes.

It’s a control freak thrill where you’re high on a self-indulgent powertrip, free to manipulate creations of your own fabrication. Nonetheless, it’s a sweet powertrip partaken in the spirit of play. You’re having fun in your own fantasy from a god-like position of mastery and that’s essential for children who have little authority and influence in the wider real world.

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We figure things are different for adults but it isn’t so. The Universe is vast, chaotic and overwhelming and, thus, I’d argue that it’s essential that grown-ups also immerse themselves in creative fancy. Take control in an RPG videogame, join some Lego bricks, build models or write and draw stories – all are crucial therapeutic activities guaranteed to make you feel better about your own existential inadequacy.

You can also get that omnipotence by watching the mighty miniscule protagonists of the Toy Story flicks and Epic. You may also catch an uncanny essence of it when you watch stop-motion features where everything in the frame (and just outside of it, for that matter) is a handcrafted miniature. Even if you’re utterly immersed in their stories and worlds you can’t help but appreciate that the characters look like models.

Getting a glimpse of behind-the-scenes footage or photographs confirms that the characters and props are miniature models painstakingly handcrafted with care and deft skill by human hands. I personally have been engaging with more of that kind of material recently, scanning the special features of the ParaNorman blu-ray release and delving deep into the collective cultural archives to remember the late, great Ray Harryhausen.

Unlike other genres and formats, I don’t believe that seeing behind the curtain spoils the magic of stop-motion animation. On the contrary, it actually enhances the experience and helps you appreciate just how incredible the form is. It’s wonderful to see someone like Harryhausen carefully manipulate the fragile form of, say, a miniaturised skeleton warrior, patience, precision and palpable affection for his creation on clear display.

Likewise, it’s a joy to look at vintage photos of Japanese crew members strolling through model cities on a kaiju movie set and, moving to the present day, watch ‘making of’ documentaries for films like ParaNorman. Beyond astounding you with artistic skill and technical wizardry though, these documents also touch upon that psychic playtime pleasure I’ve already mentioned. To watch stop-motion models in action is to return to the sweet memories of childhood and vicariously re-experience all the wonder of imaginative creative play where you’re a mighty titan lording over a wondrous fantasy world.

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I also reckon that there’s another psychological draw to movies in which everything is shrunken down and that’s one to do with comprehension. Supermassive sprawling action is exhilarating but it’s also impossible to get your head around. We, as humble human beings of normal proportion (none of us is Godzilla or Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman come to life), have very little grasp of, say, the total obliteration of a major city or huge skirmishes around a moon-size space station.

If you’ve ever looked at statistical data on the Death Star or tried to work out what’s actually happening when the Chitauri sweep through New York in Avengers Assemble you might catch my gist. Blockbuster cinema is eager to up the spectacle and make everything bigger but, though it might blow your mind (because it transcends all your spatial relations and the frames of reference and perspective) it also makes everything difficult to relate to. It’s an ant-to-a-boot scenario, in a way, and it can be overwhelming and make it hard for viewers to engage with the actual narrative beneath the special effects.

By dialling affairs down to a diminutive scale and allowing audience members to approach things from the POV of the 50 Foot Woman, everything can be appreciated. You know precisely what’s happening in the set-piece sequences of films like Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and Epic, among others, because they happen on a smaller scale that you can rationalise and re-ratio in sync with familiar frames of reference.

You, the viewer are operating from a position of power and full omniscient knowledge and there’s a pleasure in that. There’s also intimacy and these smaller skirmishes feel more personal which is why it’s nice occasionally to break from expansive conflicts to one-on-one single encounters or, indeed, trials that take place on a miniaturised scale.

Harryhausen’s skeleton warriors in Jason And The Argonauts will always be more engaging and appealing than a mass of supersized CGI creations that crush entire continents. Moving to movies that miniaturise figures in the text itself, Epic joins The Incredible Shrinking Man, Fantastic Voyage and many other mini-masterpieces that emphasise how much fun and imaginative excitement is possible when you take things and make them teeny-tiny.

The aphorism ‘small is beautiful’ is indeed true and it’ a truth that translates to screen. Little things can be potent and affective, just like wasabi I suppose.

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James Clayton is a little guy with a big heart and he’s now going to get in a submarine no larger than a micrometre and take Raquel Welch on a fantastic voyage through the chambers of your big heart. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter.

You can read James’ previous column here.