DreamWorks Animation has been churning out product for almost 15 years now, and its catalog thus far has been pretty hit-or-miss. For every Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon there’s a Bee Movie and a Monsters vs. Aliens. Their latest is Rise of the Guardians, and despite some formulaic trappings of the genre, it’s thankfully more of a win in their column.
Based on the Guardians of Childhood book series by William Joyce, Rise of the Guardians has one of those premises so simple and brilliant as to induce a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that smack to the head. The idea is that famous figures from children’s lore all exist and work together to protect kids from harm. These appointed “guardians” are Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and the Sandman, who is mute. Leading them all is “Manny,” the Man in the Moon, who appears to them as, well, the moon. When Pitch, the Bogeyman (Jude Law) invades Santa’s castle and reveals his plans to spread fear around the world, Manny decides to recruit a new team member, and summons Jack Frost (Chris Pine) for the job.
Frost is portrayed as an amiable teen slacker (complete with hoodie), who’s spent the 300-odd years of his existence just tooling around the world having fun and causing icy mischief. His problem is that since not enough children of the world believe in him, they also can’t see him, unlike the rest of the guardians, so he’s led something of a lonely and purposeless existence.
The unconventional design of the guardians makes for a lot of the film’s charm. In a nod to Saint Nick’s European origins, Santa is patterned after a scimitar-wielding Russian Cossack, complete with accent. The Tooth Fairy is a luminous, multicolored hummingbird hybrid. The Easter Bunny is a pugnacious scrapper from the Outback. Sandman is impish and childlike, but brimming with power in the guise of the magical golden sand he uses to communicate as well as to create happy dreams. Pitch is the simplest of the figures, dressed in basic black, with a hawk nose and yellow eyes that convey menace without being too scary for the intended audience. As the bogeyman invades and sabotages the various guardians’ realms we also get to see how their operations run: who’s really in charge of making Santa’s toys (it’s not who you think), how your teeth get out from under your pillow, etc. There’s a lot of creativity on display, and like most modern animation, it truly looks like a storybook come to life, full of warmth, deep colors and sparkles.
However, also like most modern animation, it seems like not a minute can go by without some frenetic action where characters are flying, jumping, spinning or sliding all over the place. Certainly no child should be expected to sit through My Dinner with Andre, but at times it feels like the caffeinated camera is too easy a crutch, used to distract from an insubstantial script. Taking an objective step or two back, there are one or two big plot holes, but the movie buries them beneath another flurry of activity, hoping you won’t notice.
That’s not to say that Jack Frost’s struggle to find his “center” isn’t compelling. Chris Pine and the rest of the cast dig into their roles with a lot of spirit. Rise of the Guardians is definitely fun, and definitely worthy of a holiday outing to the theater. Congrats, DreamWorks, Santa just brought you a bump in your average.
Director: Peter Ramsey
Writers: David Lindsay-Abaire (screenplay), William Joyce (book)
Starring: Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Isla Fisher, Hugh Jackman, Jude Law
Release Date: Nov. 21, 2012