Rise of the Guardians may at times be reminiscent of a hyperactive child’s dream, but it manages to forge a place for itself as a modern Christmas Classic.
The film is directed by Peter Ramsay, based on William Joyce’s ‘The Guardians of Childhood’ book series and short film ‘The Man in the Moon’. Joyce also produced the film, along with Guilermo Del Toro, with the screenplay written by Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire. This DreamWorks 3D animated film has been honoured with the Hollywood Animation Award at the Hollywood Film Awards Gala, of which past recipients include Cars, Toy Story 3, UP, and Wall-E. Rise of the Guardians stars Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman, Jude Law and Isla Fisher in an unlikely mix that results in the meeting of every child’s favourite collection of magical beings and gift givers. The film centres on Jack Frost (Pine), who for all intents and purposes is just a young irresponsible carefree guy- except that he has the ability to freeze anything on command, and soar through the air, adding some zeal to his antics. These antics however, go unnoticed by the children whom he tries uselessly to entertain in the hopes that they will realise his efforts. Instead, they shrug off ‘Jack Frost’ as a mere expression. Meanwhile, the Guardians of the world’s children- Santa (or ‘North’), The Sandman, The tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny- all meet at Santa’s workshop, learning that Pitch Black(Law), a sort of Bogeyman, is planning to rise again, to bring fear to all children. And so the Man in the Moon, through various signs, tells them that help will come in the form of a new Guardian- Jack Frost. It is here that the narrative takes off, with Jack Frost as reluctant hero, and reluctant friend too- helping the Guardians against a decidedly eerie Pitch. But since Jack never fully commits to the cause, it is unclear whether his bitterness towards the Man in the Moon, who persistently ignores his questions, will lead him towards Pitch’s literal dark side.
Fast panning camera movements and 3D visuals, combined with the air acrobatics of the Guardians, and fights mid-air, serve to keep tensions going, with consistent physical action a key characteristic here. Much like Santa’s workshop, much of the film is a hive of activity, colour and mess, and while consistently beautiful to watch, this busyness on screen can at times threaten to be mistaken for narrative. In this way, the film has the feel of something which has been targeted toward attention deficit children- which in all likelihood, it is.
This is not to say that it is devoid of substance. While it may rely at times on action and aesthetics, there is a purpose to these features. Frost makes for a compelling hero, as we learn much about the world of magic and Guardianship through his eyes. He is a character with which children- even those too old for the magic and belief so central to the film- can associate. For here we have a hero who is irresponsible, carefree and clad not in antiquated robes or slippers, but a blue hoodie.
What is being sought here is a new Christmas classic- with the revamped collection of magical heroes. From the Tough Australian Easter Bunny, who stands taller than Frost’s human frame, to the Huge, tattooed, Russian accented Santa -and Jack Frost, the unsuspecting and unwilling protagonist of the film. Jackman, in particular, as the Easter Bunny, presents much of the comedy, as an aggressive and flighty character who battles with his polarised identity of cuddly bunny. Like many DreamWorks animations, it is the background characters- here the silent and dim elves and grunting Yeti-like creatures of Santa’s workshop -that will encourage laughter in younger children. The film follows the tradition of good and evil, but introduces in Frost the difficulty of finding oneself outside and removed from either pole. We are also made witness to Pitch’s motives, even if they are given no legitimacy. Ultimately though, Pitch is a character who remains in the shadows- quite literally. His darkened eyes and tall slender figure, masked in shadow, as well as his penchant for appearing out of nowhere, sneaking up behind characters and then reappearing across the room- sometimes upside down, at odd angles around his castle-like lair, all evoke imagery of German Expressionist cinema, and classics such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Law as the seriously creepy Pitch, succeeds in conjuring the fear his character so relishes.
For me, one disappointing aspect was the character of The Tooth Fairy, whose presence and role- as the only female character- seemed only to serve as a potential love interest for Frost.
While the film itself does not take place around December 25th but rather in the few days before Easter, it has the definite air and charm of a Christmas movie. It takes classic Christmas mythical tropes and moves them into a new era, both though its execution- the impressive visual effects, and also through the characterisation- the gang-like quality that the Guardians embody. There is no mistletoe or carolling here, but Rise of the Guardian’s remains set in Christmas tradition nonetheless.