Friday, November 23, 2012


When it comes to representations of magical legends of childhood, it’s basically Santa Claus or nothing. Rise of the Guardians starts off with a good idea by knocking the jolly old elf down a peg or two by putting him on equal footing with his fictional colleagues: the Easter Bunny, the Sandman, and the Tooth Fairy. The movie imagines them as a sort of holiday-themed supergroup a la The Avengers, using their powers of presents and wonder to protect the children of the world. Would that they could also use their powers to preserve a sense of wonder and fun in this film, but hey, one problem at a time.

At the film’s start, things appear to be relatively peaceful, but soon the apparently long gone Boogeyman appears. He’s gathered some kind of mumbo jumbo ability to convert Sandman’s dream sand into pure nightmare fuel, which leads to some finely animated menace with galloping yellow-eyed sand creatures and roiling seas of black grit. Santa, a burly, tattooed chap with a thick Russian accent activates the Aurora Borealis, which is apparently the secret distress signal for legendary beings. Once assembled, these guardian angels hear from their silent leader, the man on the moon. He signals that the Guardians need a new member to help them save the world’s dreams: Jack Frost.

Frost is a thin, hoodie-wearing scamp who flies around the world spreading cold and snow, touching surfaces with his magic staff that spreads frost in a way reminiscent of the ice-spreading fairies in Fantasia’s Tchaikovsky segment. Though he enjoys bringing slippery ice and snow days to the children of the world, he’s sad that none of them believe in him. When the Guardians show up and ask for his help, he’s reluctant. If you guess that he’ll end up travelling a rough approximation of the hero’s journey from begrudging help to a full-fledged Guardian throughout the course of the movie, you’d be right. This being a rather self-serious, if still determinedly bouncy, fantasy, he’s given the requisite troubled past, though here the twist is that he can’t remember it. (The reveal is one nice card the film has up its sleeve). The plot, adapted from the William Joyce books by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, becomes a typical clash of good and evil played out thinly, but with some energy.

Every aspect of the film is highly competent, brightly colored and full of hectic movement. The character design is more or less as creative as the voice work is functional. Frost (Chris Pine) is designed, oddly enough, as some kind of teen matinee idol, as if shipped from a Generic Protagonist factory. I liked the rougher conception of Santa (gruffly voiced by Alec Baldwin) as an amiable bruiser with an army of big, helpful yetis and diminutive, largely useless, elves at his command. The Easter bunny (Hugh Jackman) is simply a large rabbit, but I like the way his colorful eggs can sprout legs and hide themselves. The Sandman’s a silent, short, sandy fellow, whereas the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) is a giant hummingbird lady who flits to and fro. The Boogeyman, however, makes for a rather bland villain, like someone sanded the distinctiveness off of Tom Hiddleston and gave him the voice of Jude Law. He’s easily dwarfed by his nightmare-magic.

Where the movie fails most of all is in its central thesis. The Guardians gain their powers from children believing in them and so they, in turn, protect children with their powers. That’s all fine, but the film plays out like forced frivolity, constantly extolling the benefits of childlike wonder and belief in magic while being itself depressingly literal about magic while assuming that an audience’s wonder will follow. Though first-time director Peter Ramsey has a nice control over the film’s visuals, no aspect of the film manages to rise above the level of competent. It felt to me like a long 97 minutes, filled with lots of talk of magic, but little magic felt. It clunks along from one sequence to the next, stopping at each of the characters’ lairs for a little bit of visual invention and spinning the oh-so-simple plot in place long enough to movie it ever-so-slightly forward. I’d bet kids won’t mind it so much, but what do I know? I’m not them. It’s a colorful distraction with a modicum of imagination, but all that I can testify to is that sitting through it once was more than enough for me, thanks.

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