Just when you think that animated holiday films had run out of ideas, turning childhood imaginary icons like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, and Jack Frost into magical super-heroes is kind of a surprisingly imaginative twist. That’s not to say that Rise of the Guardians doesn’t have its share of cliches (these heroes are “powered” by children’s belief), and the story is going to play out as a fight between good and evil (like all good super-hero stories are), but the fresh visual style and the excellent voice performances from the likes of Alec Baldwin (who I didn’t recognize as an eastern European Santa), Hugh Jackman (bet you didn’t know that the Easter Bunny was Australian — I didn’t either!), Jude Law (delightfully slithery as the evil boogeyman Pitch), and Chris Pine (departing not too far from his thrill-seeking take on Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboot as Jack Frost, the spirit of winter play) really make this a fun movie.
You can tell that the story is based on a book (William Joyce’s The Guardians of Childhood) because clearly someone has given the plot more thought than your average kids film. There is new mythology around each of the holiday figures (It turns out that it’s yetis who make Santa’s gifts, not the elves. The Tooth Fairy takes children’s teeth and stores them away because they contain childhood memories.) and they each have their own magical realm (The Easter Bunny’s Australian origins explain the Maori/Pacific-island feel of his home territory). At the centre of this particular story is Jack Frost, who is newly chosen to join the other Guardians (they guard the hopes and beliefs of the world’s children) to fight a rising threat from Pitch, the boogeyman. Jack has an identity issue because no humans can see him (meaning they don’t believe in him) and when the other Guardians summon him, he’s not interested in any mantle of authority or responsibility so he runs away. However, when Pitch starts moving against the Guardians one by one (starting by corrupting the Sandman’s golden dreams into nightmares) Jack is pulled into the fight.
Even as I write the summary, the story starts to sound pretty exciting, which it is. Unfortunately there is still only so much that can be done when the characters are constrained by the traditions surrounding them. The plot around these characters is stretched pretty thinly in order not to add too much more to what we already know about them. Perhaps if these characters had been completely original fantasy characters, there could have been a lot more leeway for their story. Still, adding the Jack Frost character (with his own little traumatic backstory told in flashback) provides a character without a clearly predefined mythology who can carry a new story. On top of the story there are some pretty cool visuals. The bar for feature animation is pretty high these days, and Dreamworks is right up there. The movie has a number of magical fight scenes and they are really very thrilling to watch. They’re energetic and vibrant. Each character’s powers look different and they conjure up all kinds of flamboyant special effects. (To me that’s half the battle when it comes to depicting fantasy adventure on the big screen.) By the end you know that it’s children who are going to save the day, and while the story comes to a predictably sweet and warm-feeling conclusion, it’s still pretty satisfying.
Surprisingly even though it features all kinds of holiday characters, this movie is not particularly holiday-themed. I guess since the story whizzes by a few different times of the year, it never really feels like it is focused on any one of them. Even though it’s coming out in theatres in time for Christmas and features old St. Nick, it is not a Christmas movie. Unlike other animated movies which are also good for grown-ups to enjoy, Rise of the Guardians is mostly a kids movie. Adults won’t find it boring, overly cutesy, or shallow, but it’s definitely a film where it’s better to bring some kids along. 4 out of 5