Thursday, November 22, 2012

Movie Review: Rise of the Guardians

Rise of the Guardians
Directed by: Peter Ramsey.
Written by: David Lindsay-Abaire based on the book by William Joyce.
Starring: Chris Pine (Jack Frost), Alec Baldwin (North), Jude Law (Pitch), Isla Fisher (Tooth), Hugh Jackman (Bunny), Dakota Goyo (Jamie Bennett), Khamani Griffin (Caleb), Kamil McFadden (Claude), Georgie Grieve (Sophie Bennett).

Rise of the Guardians is good enough to make you wish it was better. It has an ingenious premise – one of those ones that is so obvious you wonder how no one else ever thought of it before. Yet I wish that the movie had either taken that premise either a little more or a little less seriously. Rise of the Guardians is one of those strange children’s movies that is both a little too dark for younger kids, and a little too naïve for older ones. There is probably a sweet spot – that age that the movie is perfect for – but I’m not quite sure what it is.

The movie’s hero is Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine), who has spent the last 300 years bringing blizzard, ice and snow ball fights to the children of the world. But there’s a hole at his core – he doesn’t know why he was put here by the Man on the Moon – just that he was. He wants desperately to belong to something. Even the kids he gives snow days to do not believe in him – and as such, they cannot see him. He is a merry prankster, who isn’t all that merry.

But then the Guardians come calling. Their arch nemesis Pitch (voiced with appropriate menace by Jude Law), better known as the Boogey Man, is getting ready to make a comeback. The Guardians are a group of four childhood icons – Santa (voiced by Alec Baldwin, with a Russian accent for some reason), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman, exaggerating his Australian drawl), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher, who has an unhealthy fixation on teeth), and the silent Sandman, my personal favorite, as he seems to have been inspired by Harpo Marx. Their job is to preserve children’s belief and innocence – and Pitch wants to destroy that, by giving them nightmares. Pitch ruled in the Dark Ages, when everyone was miserable and scared, and he wants that back. For reasons he does not explain, the Man on the Moon tells the Guardians they need to recruit Jack Frost to join their ranks.

Rise of the Guardians has enough action to keep children entertained for the most part. Jack Frost sails along on the wind and the other characters either fly, or take Santa’s sleigh everywhere, and their numerous battles with Pitch are handled well, even if they do start to repeat themselves after a while. These are the scenes that any kid will enjoy – even if other parts of the movie they don’t like as much. The character design is also interesting and well done – twisting the classic image of these characters enough to give them their own unique look for the film – Santa with Naughty and Nice tattoos on his arms, the Easter Bunny as a muscular jack rabbit, the tooth fairy more of a traditional looking fairy than a Tinker Bell-esque fairy princess, and Sandman as an ever shifting mass of sand, Pitch as an almost vampire pale creation, Jack Frost an innocent yet mischievous teenager. It didn’t surprise me to learn that one of the producers of the movie was Guillermo Del Toro – because the creatures resemble some of the ones he has put on screen before. At times, these characters are upstaged by their various sidekicks – I particularly liked Santa’s two groups of minions – the hapless, hilarious elves, and the put upon, exasperated Yetis who actually do all the work, and Pitch’s galloping, red eyed black horses, who are literal nightmares come to life. The idea of essentially making these childhood fantasy figures into superheroes – much like The Avengers – is an idea that is ingenious in its simplicity.

And yet, while I was watching the movie, I wanted more from the movie. For my tastes, I would have preferred a darker outlook. The movie sees childhood as either black or white – either completely naïve and innocent, or else mired in fear, when in reality these two states co-exist in every child. You don’t need to look any further than the original backstories of most of the Guardians themselves, who while they have become symbols of childhood innocence, have some pretty dark stuff in their past. Children are afraid of things precisely because they are more willing to believe in them – things that as adults we know are not logical – the monster under the bed for example – can scare the crap of a child. Personally, I would have liked to see the movie go darker into this area – much like Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. But I also think that the movie would have better served had the gone the other way – and completely embraced the childhood wonder the movie endorses, and made this a purely innocent rollick for younger kids. The movie tries to have it both ways.

Overall though, Rise of the Guardians is a solid animated film – not quite as loud, flashy, colorful and headache inducing as many of the movie that pass themselves off as children’s entertainment these days. But it never rises to the level of greatness either – even though there are certainly great moments in the film. As I said at the beginning of the review, Rise of the Guardians is good enough that you wish it was even better.

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