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Non-Review Review: Rise of the Guardians

Rise of the Guardians might be the best-looking addition to the Dreamworks canon. It’s a visual feast, a testament to the imaginations of those working behind the scenes, with a vivid visual aesthetic that is often breathtaking. Even with the colours toned down by the 3D glasses, it still looks good, and the particles of snow and dust lends themselves to an immersive 3D presentations. The cast is also charming bringing the titular fairy tale team to life, with a wonderful group dynamic  and an enthusiasm that’s hard to dismiss.

Just in the Nick of time!

Despite that, however, Rise of the Guardians feels rather light. The plot sees the character of Jack Frost trying to find what Santa Claus describes as his “centre”, but the movie struggles to find its own emotional core. The result is a movie that feels somewhat less substantial than most of Dreamwork’s recent animated output, and it narrowly holds an otherwise superbly executed animated adventure from getting an unqualified recommendation.

The movie asks the audience to invest in Jack Frost, a relatively recently appointed “guardian” tasked with power over frost and snow. However, unlike Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or even the Easter Bunny, Jack lacks the name recognition associated with such a stewardship. As explicitly articulated during his confrontation with the piece’s villain, the sinister Boogie Man (or “Pitch Black”), Jack’s biggest fear is that nobody will believe in him. That’s pretty basic as far as your character arcs go – a very literal way of expressing a character’s central arc. After all, how many other heroes have been afraid that nobody believes in them, only to have to turn it around by the climax of the film?

What are you rabbiting on about?

The plotting is efficient, and I admire how straight-forward it is. There’s no embellishment of Jack Frost’s journey. The world doesn’t believe in him; he wants it to believe him. However, the lack of nuance means the film has to try a little bit harder to convince us to invest in Jack as character. The arc is so basic that the character needs to be fully defined for the movie to really find an emotional core. And, sadly, Rise of the Guardians can’t quite do that. Jack never feels real to us in the way that, for example, Po the Panda did. We get some flashbacks, a hint of background and a moment of tragedy, but none of these really develop into a cohesive character.

Still, Chris Pine does solid work with the material he’s given. Even if the movie can’t anchor us in Jack’s emotional journey, we find ourselves liking him a great deal. Pine has a sort of charisma that makes these sorts of insubstantial characters bearable. And the rest of the cast are similarly endearing. Alec Baldwin makes a charmingly Russian Santa (nicknamed “North”by his fellow guardians), while Hugh Jackman makes a delightfully confrontational Easter Bunny – the movie going out of its way to acknowledge (but not explain) the character’s Outback accent.

A dark horse, that one…

The villain of the piece, Pitch Black, is brought to life superbly by Jude Law. English actors always make the most delightful screen villains, with those accents dripping with sinister sophistication. Pitch Black isn’t an especially well-developed bad guy, although the movie does give him motivation and back story. However, Law – like Pine – carries a certain amount of the movie through charisma alone. Despite that Pitch Black is a creature of nightmares, the film holds back on the menace – there’s nothing here that any kid couldn’t handle – so it’s up to Law to make us wary of the character, and he does that remarkably well.

However, befitting the rich visual appeal of Rise of the Guardians, the break out character is the Sand Man, or “Sandy” as he is affectionately known. The Sand Man never speaks, and instead communicates exclusively through his sleeping dust, facial expression and body language. The animation and direction in Rise of the Guardians is truly top-notch, and Sand Man is brought to life is a delightful manner. His dreams spread like fluorescent tentacles dancing across the night sky. The dust forms expressive shapes above his head, like an old Looney Tunes cartoon. His mannerisms are illustrated in such a manner that he doesn’t need a voice actor to bestow a personality upon him.

It’s slay time!

From start to finish, Rise of the Guardians is a visual feast, as befits its subject matter. There’s any number of beautifully animated sequences, and stunningly rendered special effects. It’s amazing to see Jack Frost’s ice in operation, and the chase sequences whirling through city streets bristle with a palpable sense of excitement. The visual gags are frequently fun, the frame is filled with lots of tiny details that add to an impressive whole.

Befitting the subject matter, the animation makes the laws of physics seem almost elastic. During an early confrontation, Pitch Black dances around the set in a wonderfully fluid shadow dance. There’s a fantastic sequence in the middle of the film that sees the characters engaged in a playful competition of sorts, that works wonderfully. There’s an energy that drives the film, and there’s always a sense of scale and scope that is impressive. The computer animation is top-notch at both ends of the spectrum, both in bringing these large-scale threats to life and even in monitoring the tiniest hints of facial expressions in the characters.

What in the world were they thinking?

The movie communicates best visually, and I can’t help but imagine the story might have flown better without dialogue, or that the end result would have been even more breathtaking. There’s even a rake of thoughtful and witty visual puns on display, from Pitch Black’s night-mares to the Easter Bunny’s egg-plants. The film is set at Easter, but the visual aesthetic (lots of ice and snow) makes it a perfect fit for Christmas. In fact, it might be the best that Christmas has looked in over a decade.

In fact, I quite like the visual designs of the characters. Sure, some touches feel a little self-consciously “cool” – like Santa’s Harry Powell (or Max Cady) inspired “Naughty” and “Nice” tattoos – but that seems to be the point. The movie implies that the guardians themselves are eternally evolving basing on pop culture or social mores. For example, Jack Frost’s outfit shifts from peasant rags to a modern hoody, despite the fact he has spent centuries intangible.

Yeti-nother problem…

In an early scene between Jack Frost and Santa, Rise of the Guardians suggests that it’s the core of the characters that matter, and I think that’s an interesting and worthy take on these iconic figures of myth and legend. Sure, it’s cool to see a boomerang-wielding Easter Bunny. It might not be the classic interpretation of the character, but so long as the character still hides eggs and hopes for spring, it’s all the same, isn’t it?

I actually quite liked Rise of the Guardians. It’s a light and fun family film with a wonderful charm from both the cast and the animation. Unfortunately, it is held back a bit by the lack of an emotional centre, and it never feels like the story or the characters connect with the audience quite as well as they should. Still, if you’re looking for a family film in the coming weeks, you could certainly do a lot worse.

7 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on S.Mack! and commented:
    This is my most anticipated holiday movie in recent memory.

    I can’t wait! the creativity they used in re-imagining iconic characters, the artwork & animation itself, not to mention the cast. Geek girl here can’t wait for this one! I love animated films, and something tells me this one will not disappoint 🙂

  2. Just saw it, and I also really enjoyed it. Helps that I saw it with a theater of excited kids who laughed and gasped throughout, although even alone I’d have thought it pretty cool and fun. There were definitely ways it could have been better and even profound, and I personally didn’t need Jack to have a human backstory (I thought that took away a bit from from the fairy tale aspect, although it was nicely, if lightly, done). But the energy and visual inventiveness was infectious, and I was grinning ear-to-ear through long stretches of it.

    But did they ever explain how Sandman came back? He seemed disproportionately more powerful than the others. A very fun character, though.

    • I don’t beleive they did, but I’m okay with that. I mean, if dreams could be permenantly murdered, then it would be a very dark worldview for a family film.

      • Aye, it would. I’m okay with him being more powerful; it just seemed rather deus ex machina for him to suddenly appear after being implied dead. Perhaps it could be rationalized that since some children were already starting to believe again, and thus to have at least good daydreams, and that maybe brought him back. Overall the movie did a good job of building the mythology without needing to overly explain everything, but a couple points, like this, may have benefited from more development.

      • Very fair point.

        I know this makes me sound like I enjoyed the film a lot less than I did, but I think I sort of gave up on the narrative after the Jack Frost flashback. Gave up sounds harsh – but I stopped really expecting anything from it, if that make sense?

        I don’t mean that in a bad way, but it was the point at which I think I decided to stop hoping for something like the best of Dreamworks’ story and character work, and just allowed myself to get swept up in the visuals, the fun voice performances and the wonderful direction. All of which were top notch and hugely enjoyable.

        But you’re right, a line or two would have been nice.

      • That makes sense; for me, at least, that scene made me give up on my hopes that the story would be as solidly mythical as I wanted and worried me that they might try too hard to make everything “relatable” for kids and teens. And they did try a little too hard, but not so much as to derail the movie’s sense of fun.

        Aye, you may be somewhat like me, in that I tend to talk about what I think is the most interesting, thought-provoking aspect of a film/book, and sometimes for films that I really enjoy that aspect may be the thing that holds it back from greatness. As a result, I’ve written some reviews for movies and books I really liked that still came out sounding lukewarm or even negative. It’s a fault with my writing that I’m trying to correct. You don’t tend to be as bad at that as me, though. +) While I do think “Rise of the Guardians” had a chance of being truly great, and I’m a bit sad at the missed opportunities, my experience of watching it wasn’t really tainted by that. I probably enjoyed it more than “Brave,” even though that one is better focused and arguably the better movie.

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