Epic: This is what a good children's film looks like

Movies for kids generally exist in a zone of lowered expectations. Recycled sitcom jokes and microwaved pop culture references dot a paint-by-numbers story about rehashed characters. So it's refreshing to see a film like Epic, which actually packs a real story, along with some gorgeous imagery. Minor spoilers ahead...

Seriously, it seems like every year, there are a tiny handful of movies for kids that actually have a decent story, an emotional punch and some fun bits that aren't reconstituted from freeze-dried material. In recent years, those films have included ParaNorman, Despicable Me, Rise of the Guardians, Wreck-It Ralph and Brave. When it comes to animated films, there used to be a clear distinction between Pixar and non-Pixar films, but we've been lucky enough to have decent films from Pixar and other studios recently.

In any case, Epic feels very much in the same league as the aforementioned five movies, in terms of: A) having a story rather than just a collection of tropes, B) bringing some real emotion instead of just a sporadic sentimentality, C) being about something, D) constructing some thrilling, dynamic set pieces that move the story forward and come out of a strong sense of the physical, E) having characters you root for.

In Epic, M.K. (Amanda Seyfried) is a teenage girl whose mother has just died, and she's been shipped off to the middle of nowhere to live with her father, a mad scientist named Professor Bomba (Jason Sudeikis). He's obsessed with proving that there are tiny little people living in the forest, who are a crucial part of the ecosystem and move too fast for humans to see unaided. And this obsession has not just ruined Bomba's career, it also drove his wife and daughter away. And in fact, M.K. quickly realizes she can't stay with her crazy dad this time around, either, because his obsession with finding the little people in the forest is making him impossible to be around.

Except that, just as M.K. is preparing to leave her dad and go back to the city, she encounters those little people in the forest that her dad was talking about. And she gets shrunk to little-person size, and has to help save this tiny society of quasi-fairies from their enemies the Boggans, who represent the forces of death and decay.

Epic: This is what a good children's film looks like

So basically, it's a portal fantasy — M.K. accidentally falls into a portal that leads to a magical world where she has to learn the rules, and she's entrusted with a vital mission by the Queen (Beyonce!). And among other things, Epic shows why portal fantasies work so well, especially for audiences that aren't steeped in fantasy tropes: M.K. gets to be the audience surrogate, discovering this world alongside us. And instead of characters in the fantasy world randomly dropping references to pop culture or consumer electronics, all that wry juxtaposition comes via M.K. herself.

Epic: This is what a good children's film looks like

And the fantasy world in Epic is just plain gorgeous, even better than the concept art we featured a while back. The thing that jumps out at you, watching this movie, is the amazing work on textures: every leaf and every sword and every bird wing has surfaces you can practically reach out and touch. This is the result of years of evolution in computer animation, which has now reached the point that computer-generated surfaces feel tangible.

For a movie where there are three separate worlds that need to feel real and distinct — the "real" world, the world of the Leafmen and flower people, and the revolting decaying world of the Boggans — the contrasts between different textures and surfaces is absolutely essential, and brilliantly done. It doesn't feel like we're going from reality to a paper-cut fantasy world, but just that we're transiting between two different real places.

And the action in the film is great. The Leafmen ride on little birds, and the Boggans have bats and bugs — and there's dogfights. There's also some great "Forest of Endor" type chase scenes and fight scenes. And a lot of really lovely swordfights and battles. The main baddie, Mandrake, is voiced by Christoph Waltz, and he totally commits to being a cartoon villain, with his whole heart.

And the movie manages to give M.K. two arcs — realizing her father wasn't crazy, and stepping up to become a fantasy hero — without shortchanging either one of them. In fact, the two arcs keep feeding into each other, in a way that feels pretty seamless and elegant, and without giving too much away they come together nicely at the end. This is one of those films where the plot resolution is also a character resolution, without anybody having to lean on any big clunky plot levers.

Epic: This is what a good children's film looks like

At the same time, the other character arc in the film is pure cliché — there's a young "Leafman" (basically plant-themed fantasy knight) named Nod, who is irresponsible and doesn't want to step up, and just wants to do his own thing, etc. etc. Voiced by Josh Hutcherson, Nod is doing exactly the same "irresponsible young guy won't step up" thing you've seen in a million similar movies, without anything particularly new added. Except, maybe, the relationship between Nod and his mentor Ronin (Colin Farrell), which has a few nice moments.

In any case, Epic is a fun fantasy adventure that you can take your kids to without cringing. And in a time when we're being saturated with reimagined fairytales, this is a movie that treats its fairytale elements lightly and with a certain amount of cleverness. There's no ponderous attempt to give any of the procedings some artificial "fabulist" gravitas. And this is the second movie in the past six months from children's book author William Joyce, who also gave us the quite decent Rise of the Guardians. (If you liked Guardians, you'll like this, too.) This time around, Joyce is not only writing and producing, he's the film's production designer.

So yeah, Epic isn't just a good kids' movie, it's also a good fantasy film in which the origin of a hero is done well and heroism is celebrated. (And the scientist father ends up being treated well, and science isn't demonized, yay.) Epic actually lives up to its title, and might wind up being one of the summer's better action-adventure films.