The title characters of Rise of the Guardians want you to have a holiday season full of hope and wonder…or else.
WARNING: HAPPY “MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS” DAY!
(NOTE: This is a review of the 2D version of the film.)
For the past 300 years, the carefree and playful Jack Frost (Chris Pine) has traveled the world using his gifts to bring fun to children via snow days and sled rides. He suddenly finds responsibility thrust upon him when he is recruited by the Guardians—North (Alec Baldwin), Tooth (Isla Fisher), Bunnymund (Hugh Jackman) and Sandy—to help them combat Pitch Black (Jude Law), who is seeking to cover the world with fear and darkness. Still seeking to find his reason for being, Jack reluctantly decides to help the Guardians protect the innocence of children everywhere. By force, if necessary.
Based on The Guardians of Childhood series by William Joyce without being an adaptation of any of them, Rise seeks to turn the typical holiday movie on its head. In case it’s not clear, the Guardians are better known to us here in the real world as Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and the Sandman, while Pitch Black is the Bogeyman. The result is something like an animated, fairy tale-informed version of The Avengers, where five superheroes who also happen to be cultural icons band together to fight a villain’s scheme for world domination. It’s not nearly as coherent, but it’s just about as much fun.
In the offices of the C.L.A.U.S. Organization.
Visually, Rise is likely the most impressive thing to come out of Dreamworks’ animated history. Besides its amazing fluidity and depth, it has a remarkable tactility and exaggerated realism. Nobody would ever mistake any of these characters for a live actor, but there is a distinct, constructed reality around the setting that makes the characters seem real in the context of the film. Director Peter Ramsey has also filled the frame with a remarkable level of detail, from the moisture in Jack Frost’s eyes to every nook and cranny of North’s base of operations. Oddly enough, though, this detail and flow can sometimes act against the film. There are a number of times when the action sequences feel chaotic despite the expert choreography of the steps. It’s kind of like a sugar rush from a gourmet piece of candy. The film was clearly designed to take full advantage of 3D, and this is one of the very few times where 3D seems like a necessity.
The visual aspects of the film often show a distinct influence from Japanese animation, especially the films of Hayao Miyazaki and even those of Satoshi Kon. When Sandy gets to work, his sand flows in graceful tendrils around the heads of sleeping children, their dreams taking shape from the sand, and when a troupe of dream dinosaurs slowly and silently walk through town, it’s highly reminiscent of the phantasmagoric climax of Kon’s Paprika. Bunnymund’s warrens are a pastel Miayazaki homage, guarded by egg-shaped golems with shifting faces resembling Aboriginal masks and populated with kodama-like eggs on tiny legs. Then, of course, there’s Jack Frost himself, who has what can only be described as Square Enix hair and owes a great deal of his design to the standard anime teenager.
Jack unlocks his Ultimate Weapon.
With such a strong focus on the visuals, it’s kind of disappointing that the story isn’t as dynamic. While it’s certainly not a bad script, it also rarely rises above standard kid movie fare. It does make good with that material, it just doesn’t break any new ground. David Lindsay-Abaire‘s script revolves around the quest for identity, the power of memory and believing in both your own abilities and in things bigger than yourself. One of the main plot points is Jack’s search for who he is, why he was chosen to be Jack Frost and what his purpose is in the world. It’s a common trope to be sure, but that may be simply because it’s something almost everybody can relate to, from young children to grown adults. The dialogue and the intentions are good, but the structure could use some work.
The story rarely has time to breathe during the film’s breakneck pace. The action scenes are so thrilling that when the film takes a quick break to inject some story into the film, it seems at times almost unwelcome. Despite Pitch’s global reach, the conflict at the center of the film simply doesn’t seem as important as it thinks it is. To its credit, the film is nearly devoid of the pop culture references that can clutter up and weigh down most modern children’s films (pick any moment from the Shrek series), content to let the characters’ personalities speak for themselves.
The eternal struggle between Winter and Easter.
The cast is usually able to hide the film’s flaws, however, through some excellent voice work that rivals some of animation’s best. Chris Pine does a good job with Jack Frost, although it’s a little odd at first to hear what is clearly not the voice of a teenage boy coming out of Jack’s willowy frame. It’s also kind of odd how Jack is as dreamy as Pine himself, his cocky attitude coming off as charming instead of annoying. Alec Baldwin is completely unrecognizable as North. North is a big, Russian, gainer bear of a daddy, his forearms tattooed with “Naughty” and “Nice.” Baldwin gives him the right balance of personality and personability, intimidating but approachable. Side note: as a music geek, I appreciate his habit of using Russian composer’s names as exclamations (”Shostakovich!” “Rimsy-Korsakov!”). Isla Fisher’s Tooth is hyper but controlled, a perfect match to the character’s hummingbird-like design. Sandy is sometimes the most expressive Guardian even though he communicates solely through sand pictures above his head and never speaks.
Don’t mess with Saint Nick. Ever.
The best performances, however, come from Hugh Jackman and Jude Law. Law’s Pitch Black is an amalgamation of a number of classic villains. He looks like a combination of Voldemort and Hades from Disney’s Hercules, travels as a shadow like Nosferatu and has the sinister charm of none other than Lucifer himself. Law seems like he’s really enjoying himself in a tasteful, restrained way. He never chews up the scenery, but he’s clearly having fun. His Pitch is menacing and vicious but also oddly sympathetic in his misplaced anger at being ignored by the world. Hugh Jackman steals the show, however, as Bunnymund, who could probably best be described as the Wolverine of the Guardians. Jackman uses his natural Australian accent for the character, and while it may seem like an obvious joke to make the Easter Bunny a gruff, no-nonsense jackaroo with Hugh Jackman’s voice, it’s a great joke all the same. Like Law, Jackman sounds like he’s having the most fun he’s had in years with this role, and Bunnymund easily comes off as the most entertaining of the Guardians.
Ain’t I a stinker, mate?
The film’s most striking aspect may be its darkest parts. Pitch is clearly evil. To paraphrase Joss Whedon describing Angelus, he’s not just angry or cranky, he’s simply downright evil. In some ways, he has the same energy as Disney’s finest villain, the unrepentantly wicked Malificient. He’s willing to kill and seems nearly unescapable as he travels through shadows and darkness. All the characters, perhaps with the exception of Tooth, are armed to the teeth, each with a signature weapon like in a video game. North has a pair of huge sabers, Bunnymund a boomerang and easter-egg bombs, Sandman a pair of dream-sand whips, Jack has his staff and Pitch has a scythe made of shadow that has the reach of a city block. Even the cutesiest part of the film—one of Tooth’s young helpers called Babytooth that attaches herself to Jack—easily manages to avoid being cloying or pandering. The film was clearly put together with a more mature mindset than most, which helps make its deficiencies forgivable if not forgettable.
In the hall of the Nightmare King.
While Rise isn’t destined to be a new holiday classic, and its ability as a franchise-launcher is questionable, it’s a mostly well-crafted film with an excellent cast and a dizzying array of visual treats. It’s a welcome change of pace from the typical animated holiday fare, and it’s never less than highly enjoyable. Now if only they could make a spin off entitled Bunnymund Beyond Thunderdome, everything would be right with the world.
Rating: 7 out of 10 / B
JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and brings you peace, love and big swords.