That Rise of the Guardians is any good would qualify as one of the biggest surprises of the year; the fact that it’s kind of great feels like Dreamworks is completely overdoing it.
Everything seems stacked against the movie: the title is bland, forgettable and leads you to believe the film is a sequel to Zack Snyder’s Legend of the Guardians. The very concept of turning Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny into tattooed, heavily armed action heroes is manifestly idiotic. And then there’s the studio: Dreamworks has a history of turning out cartoons mired in already-expired-on-release pop culture references and goonish, obvious jokes. On paper Rise of the Guardians is easily written off.
On screen it’s another story. The movie is fresh, exciting, fun, smart, touching and, best of all, perfectly and squarely aimed at kids while never talking down to or condescending to them. It’s an adventure story that feels huge, and a personal story that feels real. It’s also a great superhero team up movie.
The film has a unique genesis. It’s not based on William Joyce’s Guardians of Childhood books so much as it’s inspired by them. Joyce’s books - both young reader novels and picture books - create a shared mythology for some of the best known childhood legends. In the books Joyce explains the origins of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman and the Man in the Moon. Yes, I’m sick of origins as well, but that’s not what Rise of the Guardians is about.
Joyce’s books are set in the past, establishing the backstories of these characters. The movie is set in the present, with each of these “Guardians of Childhood” in full swing in their own duties. It’s a sequel to the existing books. There’s a new character introduced, Jack Frost, a mischievous avatar of winter’s cold, but unlike the other myth characters, Frost doesn’t know his own origins. He just woke up one day in a frozen pond, discovering his powers and the fact that nobody in the world - except other myths - can see him. For the last few hundred years he’s hung around creating snow days, instigating snowball fights and being incredibly lonely.
Warner Bros would do well to look at Rise of the Guardians as the blueprint for their Justice League movie. The film knows we understand who these characters are, and while it may take a moment to explain the idiosyncratic versions on display - like the fact that Santa’s toys are made by Yetis, not elves - Guardians skips the origin BS and gets right to the team up. It presents the Guardians of Childhood as a semi-retired supergroup who long ago vanquished the Boogeyman. Now he’s back, though, corrupting Sandman’s dream sand to make nightmares, and the team’s silent overseer, Man in the Moon, has brought everybody back together and added Jack Frost to the mix. The set-up is quick, and we get to the action right away.
The action is often very good, even if the movie has about six ‘roller coaster’ sequences too many. The battles between the Guardians and the Boogeyman (real name: Pitch Black) are epic in scope and imagination, with fights taking place high in the air as well as in city streets. There are some terrific slugfests in the movie, and the stakes even feel real, thanks to an early casualty. Rise of the Guardians takes the muscular action of superhero comics and applies it to the family film while maintaining the integrity of both.
The tone of Rise of the Guardians is what makes me love it. The movie takes itself seriously - this isn’t a Shrek-like series of ironic put-ons - but it’s not trying to be ‘serious.’ The movie aims for exciting and fun, and it’s often funny. It’s imaginative and always moving, constantly bringing us to new, gorgeous locations. Guardians creates a big, sweeping world in which you’d be happy to live.
You’d want to hang out with these characters, too. This version of Santa is a boisterous Russian, played with the kind of self-adoration only Alec Baldwin could bring to a role. Hugh Jackman’s Easter Bunny is paramilitary comic relief. Isla Fisher’s Tooth Fairy is just this side of creepy. And Chris Pine’s Jack Frost is the ideal Hero’s Journey traveler - resisting the call just enough without being some sort of irritating reluctant hero.
I found myself enthralled in the world of the Guardians from beginning to end. The design and animation are gorgeous; the opening sequence of Jack Frost first awakening is strange and beautiful, while Tooth Fairy’s South Asian hideaway and Easter Bunny’s pagan-influenced warren are gorgeous. I walked out of the movie wanting to know more about this universe, to experience further adventures with these characters, and to learn about the other mythological characters who must exist elsewhere. It’s not a movie that feels designed to sell toys, it’s a movie that feels designed to spark imaginations.