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'Ice Age' director labors eight years to get 'Epic' on the screen

| Sunday, May 26, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

All those years since “Ice Age” and “Robots,” you'd figure Chris Wedge had retired on the “Scrat” bucks he and Blue Sky Animation pulled in from that saber-toothed squirrel.

“Yeah, I'd have starved, like Scrat, if I'd done that,” he says, jokingly.

Wedge, like Scrat, had this one hard nut to crack. Wedge, 56, has spent years trying to get his latest film, “Epic,” based on the writings of children's author William Joyce, on the screen.

“To be honest, I've been in development hell. Not every day was like that, but it took four years just to get a green light to do it.”

You'd think a guy with his track record could write his own animation ticket. “Ice Age” earned more than $380 million, and spawned an animation franchise. “Robots” pulled in another $260 million. But “Epic” was a hard sell, and a difficult story to shape into a film.

“It's different from what people expect an animated film to be. I wanted to move beyond a character comedy with wisecracks. Studios say that comedy is what it takes for animation to cross over to the adult audience. I wanted something more akin to an adventure tale than some jokey yuk-it-up comedy.”

“The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs,” the novel the film is based on, has warrior fairies protecting a forest. Wedge saw something like “Avatar” in it, concocting a film with leaf men battling bog creatures who long for a world of rot and decay.

In those intervening years, Joyce's novel “A Day With Wilbur Robinson” became Disney's “Meet the Robinsons,” and opened in theaters where it underperformed. Joyce's series of novels “The Guardians of Childhood” became “Rise of the Guardians,” and a low-water mark for DreamWorks Animation.

“You have to trust your idea,” Wedge says. “You work for years, in a vacuum, with no idea what environment your film is going to be released in. You don't know what other animators are doing, you're sealed off from their work. I've been making animation since I was 12. I trust my instincts that we're on to something special.”

And, as he shepherds his film across the opening weekend finish line, Wedge can be excused for feeling relieved. Early reviews are good, if not ecstatic — “Epic” is “not a crossover classic; this has enough wit and charm to entertain both big and little people,” said Britain's Empire Magazine. And the box office from overseas, where it opened last weekend, has been very good.

And, since animation is the one genre which seems to have a long, healthy shelf life on home video, Wedge refuses to worry.

“We create this world that is not culturally specific. The worlds of “Ice Age” or “Epic” don't have American haircuts, American slang, so they show overseas quite well. So they're timeless.”

Roger Moore is a movie critic for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

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