Rise of the Guardians may just be the best film DreamWorks Animation has ever produced, not that I believe there’s much competition for the title. I like the first Shrek, and love Kung Fu Panda, but have never cared much for the rest of their output; even when they aren’t churning out an endless assembly line of lazy sequels, I am turned off by the broad, pandering, flagrantly commercial attitude with which most of their films are produced. I have rarely gotten any sense of wonder out of DreamWorks films, any of the immediate life and vitality that fuels the best animation has to offer.
This, more than anything else, is what Rise of the Guardians gets right. It is a bold, wildly inventive, and extremely heartfelt love letter to the fantasy of childhood, made with passion, enthusiasm, and relentless creative energy. There is a strong, tangible soul behind each bold image of magic and darkness, or at the core of every vivid character, and I found myself quickly swept up in the spirit of the production.
Director Peter Ramsey establishes a thoughtful, reverential tone from the very first scene, which depicts the sudden birth of Jack Frost, mythical arbiter of snow and ice, on a quiet winter’s night. The scene is a little different than anything I have seen in modern American animation, a quietly beautiful, subtly haunting portrait of magic, spectacle, and, as Frost is quickly dismayed to find that the people of earth cannot see or talk to him, doubt. It’s the sort of smart, delicate tone I could never imagine DreamWorks committing to for an entire movie, but for the most part, this is how Rise of the Guardians plays. It is more overtly humorous at times, and more devoted to action and thrills at others – and falters, occasionally, when it moves too far in this direction – but on the whole, this is high-fantasy done seriously, and I cannot respect Ramsey and his team enough for that decision.
Frost is our protagonist, it turns out, for after we skip ahead several centuries, he has been appointed – by the silent, God-like ‘man in the moon – earth’s newest ‘Guardian.’ The Guardians are well known to all of us as the mythical beings of childhood: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, and so on. Each is a main character in this movie, and when the nefarious Boogeyman reappears after centuries in hiding, attempting to instill fear in children around the world, these Guardians must accept Frost as their unlikely newest member in hopes of restoring belief around the globe.
The concept sounds silly on paper, to be frank, and that is why the reverent tone is so important. If Rise of the Guardians were merely a vehicle for cheap laughs, cashing in on familiar holiday tropes and iconic storybook personalities, it would be a creative failure. Instead, the film has something very poignant to say about how and why children believe in these figures, and why the ability to believe is central to the childhood experience. Each character is vividly realized and uniquely interpreted, and the film argues rather powerfully, and insightfully, for why each has a place in our collective mythology.
Guillermo del Toro served as creative consultant and executive producer on this project, and one can definitely sense his stylistic playfulness and eye for subverting iconography in the DNA of the film. Combine that with author William Joyce’s distinctive source material, and it seems that Ramsey and his artists had plenty of encouragement to be bold with their imaginations. The film reinvents each of its central characters in the most clever and detailed ways imaginable, crafting whole sub-worlds for Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny that could easily stand on their own as the basis for individual films. The last decade has seen a lot of ‘reimaginings’ of Santa’s workshop, in films like The Santa Clause, The Polar Express, and Elf, but I am far more fascinated by how Rise of the Guardians handles the North Pole, and that is only one fraction of the film’s larger tapestry. The dramatic value the film gets out of a concept as silly as the tooth fairy, for instance, is absolutely remarkable.
Still, the most impressive reinvention here is Jack Frost, a character I have never found compelling on even the most basic conceptual levels. Rise of the Guardians transforms him into a wonderful protagonist, one whose powers – realized with breathtaking visual ingenuity – lend him doubt, and whose doubt makes him human. He’s the film’s touchstone character, the one children and, I suspect, many grown-ups will relate to, and if his arc is a familiar one – the lost rebel who finds his place in the world – the story is told with such heart and passion that the big emotional beats still hit very close to home.
Chris Pine is excellent in the role, doing nice understated work that never draws attention away from the animation. The voice work is terrific across the board, in fact, each performer melding perfectly with their character. I love that Alec Baldwin plays Santa as Russian – why this has not been done before in a mainstream movie eludes me – and that Hugh Jackman gets to use his native – and awesome – Australian accent for a very feisty interpretation of the Easter Bunny. As the Boogeyman, Jude Law is equally smart casting, hitting notes both fun and menacing in what could easily be a one-note part.
I wish I could say more about the film’s seemingly gorgeous animation, but the screening I attended had a severely dim projector, and with the extra darkness of 3D on top of that, the image was often quite difficult to see. The 3D is technically excellent, clear and immersive at all times, but as usual, I recommend going 2D on this one, especially in an age where we cannot trust major theatre chains to change out bulbs regularly. In any case, the visuals are extremely appealing, sporting a distinctive, storybook style and bursting with detail at every turn.
Rise of the Guardians is not quite the best animated feature of the year – that title still belongs to Wreck-It Ralph – but I commend DreamWorks for stepping outside their comfort zone, delivering top-notch children’s entertainment made with artistic clarity and genuine vision. This is the sort of film I can easily see kids falling in love with, and one that opens more discussion paths for parents than ‘wasn’t the zebra funny?’ Between this, Wreck-It Ralph, and Life of Pi, families have several great choices for smart and fulfilling entertainment this Thanksgiving, and I hope audiences take advantage of all the quality on display.