Pre-release buzz for Rise of the Guardians, the latest film from DreamWorks Animation, has drawn a wide-variety of reactions due primarily to the film’s silly but, at the same time, intriguing premise – a team of universally beloved folkloric legends tasked with protecting the children of Earth from evil threats. Before the movie’s helmer, Peter Ramsey, came onboard (with only Monsters vs Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space and second-unit directorial credits to his name), Rise of the Guardians was the brainchild of fan-favorite writer and production designer, William Joyce (Meet the Robinsons and Robots) – who is also publishing a standalone Guardians of Childhood book series that traces the origins of each character depicted in the film.
Rise of the Guardians takes place several hundred years after the books but, despite dropping “Childhood” from the movie title, the final film still spends a lot of time servicing the juice box crowd. As a result, should adult viewers and cautiously optimistic animation fans pass on Rise of the Guardians or does the movie offer a healthy balance of humor and heart (plus holiday fun) for all ages?
Fortunately, thanks to a solid mix of clever twists on familiar mythological beings, both the script (penned by Oz: The Great and Powerful contributor David Lindsay-Abaire) and visual aesthetic (Guillermo del Toro serves as a producer) offer plenty for older moviegoers to enjoy. As an example, instead of the typically jolly grandfather portrayal of Santa, Guardians paints the legendary character as sword-wielding, tattooed, brawler North – the Guardian of Wonder (voiced by Alec Baldwin). Rise of the Guardians falls short of serving the more mature and thought-provoking thematic material as well as ambitious storytelling depicted in other genre-blurring animated offerings, such as Pixar’s Up and Toy Story 3 or Nickelodeon’s Rango; however, the film’s likable roster of main characters, and some smart supporting additions (such as North’s yetis and elves), deliver plenty of enjoyable moments and even a few impactful (albeit familiar) dramatic beats.
The core storyline follows Jack Frost (Chris Pine), a reckless and lonely “legend” invisible to everyone around him. With no friends of his own, and lacking any memory of his pre-Frost life, he moves from town to town thanklessly providing snow days to the children of the Earth. Then, one day, an ancient evil is reawakened. When Nightmare King, Pitch (Jude Law), begins poisoning the dreams of children around the world with fear, the Moon summons Jack to join an elite group of “Guardians,” North, Bunny (Hugh Jackman), Tooth (Isla Fisher), and Sandy, charged with protecting Earth’s children. Unsure of his own abilities, it’s up to Jack to take down Pitch before the Nightmare King can snuff out his fellow guardians – replacing the light of childhood “belief” with darkness and terror.
In the wrong hands, the fundamental premise might have been a cheesy and convoluted mess but Rise of the Guardians presents a surprisingly heartfelt, though often predictable, narrative about the power of belief – and the importance of companionship. Some viewers will, no doubt, scoff at the belief “message” – since, for anyone who no longer believes in Santa, the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, or Sandman, the core message loses some of its magic. That said, even if the various story beats are centered around a thin moral and a fairly traditional coming of age tale, the characters flesh out the experience with an enjoyable group dynamic – and an especially charming mix of rivalry and camaraderie. One scene in particular, which sees the Guardians join forces to assist Tooth in collecting teeth, serves as a sharp example of how the filmmakers expanded on a goofy concept with solid writing and slick art design – delivering a batch of memorable characters that blend kick butt exploits with lighthearted hijinks (along with tongue-in-cheek riffs on long-standing mythology).
Frost is an entertaining lead protagonist and offers an enjoyable “newcomer” perspective that helps to educate viewers on the cheeky setup. Similarly, characters like the Sandman (Sandy), who does not “speak” the entire film, are surprisingly impactful in spite of their folklore roots. Though, the juxtaposition of Pitch and Frost is often on-the-nose – clearly intended to exemplify how characters that have experienced the pain of neglect and isolation can ultimately choose very different paths for their futures – one of inspiration, the other of fear. As a result, the primary conflict relies on a lot of standard good versus evil tropes and, subsequently, execution that’s short on surprises.
As mentioned, Rise of the Guardians isn’t likely to challenge older moviegoers with opportunities for post-viewing introspection but that doesn’t mean that, moment-to-moment, post-adolescent viewers won’t be swept up in the onscreen story beats. The movie offers a number of smart set pieces that take full advantage of the reimagined heroes – each one providing insight into the larger Guardians world (with peeks into Santa’s workshop, Bunny’s egg sanctuary, etc). The film can also be surprisingly somber at times and a few plot developments will be heartbreaking, regardless of age. That said, none of the darker developments are outright manipulative; instead, they serve as important turning points in the “power of belief” concept.
Rise of the Guardians is playing in 3D theaters and the value of the premium up-charge is debatable. There’s no doubt that, like a lot of animated films, the visuals are enhanced by the added 3D depth. Certain character designs and environments look great in 3D but action is often frantic and the effect can have a negative impact on fast-moving sequences – lost in a blur of flashy colors and quick motions.
Given the childhood-centric plot, Rise of the Guardians is going to be underwhelming for older moviegoers hoping for an especially unique animated film experience. However, while the project relies heavily on very standard plot developments, the lively and entertaining characters, coupled with a rich art style, definitely expand the film’s appeal and onscreen value. Rise of the Guardians isn’t as memorable as some of its contemporaries, and the overarching message will be hard to translate for non-believing adults, but the film still offers a worthwhile dose of harmless fun and worthwhile heart.
If you’re still on the fence about Rise of the Guardians, check out the trailer below:
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Rise of the Guardians is Rated PG for thematic elements and some mildly scary action. Now playing in 2D and 3D theaters.