Thursday, December 6, 2012

RISE OF THE GUARDIANS Is A Fun, Imaginative Adventure


- Imagine a pseudo-superhero team comprised of such make-believe children's icons as Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny (!), The Tooth Fairy, and The Sandman. Imagine that Santa is a badass brusier with "Naughty" and "Nice" tattooed on either arm, and that The Easter Bunny is an Aussie dude-with-a-'tude who wields a boomerang as a weapon. Those geeky enough to smile at this premise will get a kick out of RISE OF THE GUARDIANS, a new Dreamworks animated film that imagines childhood fantasy figures as earthly protectors who must guard the world's children from the likes of evil baddies like The Bogeyman. The thing is - even though the film might outwardly appear to make these beloved icons edgy or gritty, the movie is actually very sweet and whimsical. The visual style is actually very storybook-esque, rendered in gorgeously-animated CGI that looks amazing in 3D. So don't be fooled by the slightly comic bookish character designs - RISE OF THE GUARDIANS does have plenty of action and adventure, but at the end of the day it's a relatively simple, kid-friendly tale about belief and imagination.

The film's protagonist is Jack Frost - a supernatural entity who wields the power of ice, wind, and cold. The movie's mythology establishes that the world is filled with these super-powered wonders - each made into what they are by the mysterious Man in the Moon. These beings are invisible to the average person, but can be seen by kids if enough children believe in them. Jack Frost, sadly, is totally invisible - despite the fact that he loves nothing more than helping and having fun with kids (unbeknownst to the kids, him being invisible and all). He starts snowball fights, crafts cool ice-patterns ... he even causes Snow Days. But Jack's life takes on a new purpose when he is recruited to join The Guardians - an elite assemblage of mythical beings, dedicated to protecting the world's children from any threat of evil. As it turns out, Santa, The Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy, etc. need Jack to help do battle with the Bogeyman, aka Pitch Black. Pitch's scheme is to gain power by making kids believe in *him*. He'll do that by interrupting Easter, thwarting the Tooth Fairy and her army of sprites' nightly visits to kids, turning the Sandman's dreams into nightmares, etc. In Jack, Pitch sees a sort of kindred spirit - a fellow "invisible" who kids laugh off as imaginary.

When GUARDIANS gets overly talky and expository, it can drag a bit. And some of the dialogue is a bit overly-emo - the kind of stuff you might see in a Super Nintendo-era Japanese role playing game. But when the film relies on imagery to tell its story, it can be flat-out eye-melting. Some of the fantasy worlds shown here - Santa's workshop, the Tooth Fairy's fairy kingdom ... are rendered with the utmost detail and imagination and sense of wonder. Guillermo del Toro is listed as a producer on the film, and you can see his creative influence in how well-realized the various fantasy-lands are. Even when we only glimpse them briefly, they feel fully-formed and alive. The character design is a little garish in some cases (Santa, the Easter Bunny), but I actually really liked the look of the film overall - Jack, The Tooth Fairy, and the Sandman are all really cool-looking, as is Pitch. And there are lots of fun touches that make the characters feel unique - the choice to have the Sandman be mute, expressing his thoughts with sand-constructs, is pretty interesting and fun.

But Santa is still a highlight of the film, because Alec Baldwin voices him in such a fun manner - giving him a boisterous, Russian-accented voice that really sells the character and makes him likable. Same goes for Hugh Jackman as the Easter Bunny - he wins you over by selling the character 100%. Isla Fischer is chirpy and sweet as the fast-talking Tooth Fairy - and again, she makes what could have been a lame/cheesy character feel likable and interesting. As Pitch, Jude Law amps up the sinister-factor and does some classic badguy voicework. Finally, Chris Pine is very good as Jack Frost. I was actually surprised that it was Pine voicing him, as Jack is a far cry from the tough, confident characters that the actor is known for. While Jack has a lot of the movie's most cringe-worthy "oh woe is me, what is my meaning in life?" dialogue, Pine makes sure that Jack ultimately comes off as more empathetic than whiny.

Again, the visuals in the movie are often pretty awesome. Soaring flying scenes, spectacular fantasy landscapes, kinetic battle scenes, and artistic, evocative imagery make this one of the prettiest animated films I've seen in some time. There is a level of detail in the animation that's pretty remarkable, and I also found the action to be incredibly well-choreographed ... resulting in some fairly epic confrontations between good and evil.

I guess I will mention though ... that these sorts of movies always make me wonder, just a bit, about the message they are sending to kids. A major theme of the movie is that the kids' belief in the Guardians is what gives them power, with Pitch's evil plan revolving around discrediting the Guardians so that the kids no longer believe. Now, I am all for kids having imagination and wonder in their lives. But I always get prickly when a movie preaches that *all* kids should, of course, believe Christian symbols like Santa and The Easter Bunny - and for them to not believe represents a worrisome loss of childhood innocence. Anyways, it's just a pet peeve when movies present Christianity as a universal mono-religion when we all know it isn't (and tellingly, the scenes that show Santa hopping around the globe show him specifically in countries like England - we never see the Guardians in, say, India).

All that aside, I really liked RISE OF THE GUARDIANS. It's a fun, visually-breathtaking film that takes mixes child-like whimsy with a slight comic-bookish edge to craft a really cool, imaginative story. I was super-impressed by the amount of world-building and care that clearly went into this one, and found myself surprised at how won over I was by the characters. This is a film that is up there with some of the best animated films of 2012.

My Grade: B+

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