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Reckless Guardians: The Rise and Fall of Cinematic Responsibility…

I actually quite enjoyed The Rise of the Guardians. It is probably the most visually assured animation from Dreamworks to date, the cast are all having a great time and the plot is simple but effective. However, I just didn’t wind up feeling an emotional connection to the central character, Jack Frost. Jack is an embodiment of an abstract concept – a “guardian” appointed by “the Man in the Moon” (or “Manny” to his friends). The bulk of Rise of the Guardians is about Jack learning to embrace his new position and everything that comes with it – to swallow his insecurity and to accept that he has been chosen to do a kick-ass job.

Still, it remains quite difficult to connect with Jack Frost, and I wonder if it’s the same problem that made Pixar’s much-maligned Cars 2 so difficult to swallow. Rather than learning to temper his unreliable inconsistency, the movie asks an irresponsible character to effectively embrace the flaw completely.

Note: This article contains a few spoilers for Rise of the Guardians.

Cinema has always admired its slackers and rebels as they thumb their nose at the forces of order. Perhaps Ferris Bueller, as brought to life by Matthew Broderick, is the most obvious example – but tend to side with the cheeky rebel over staid authority. Part of the fun of watching Axel Foley arrive in Los Angeles stems from the fact that he’s going to shake the starch out of those stiffs’ shirts.It’s this view which suggests – incorrectly, I’d argue – that Batman is less interesting than his colourful villains.

Han Solo is among the most loved characters in science-fiction because he actively doesn’t care what people in authority think of him – he might have an obvious affection for his friends, but he does things his own way, even when he is General Solo. That’s why he’s so much more fun than any character in the the prequel trilogy, who frequently find themselves bogged down with bureaucracy and red tape. Jack Frost is played by Chris Pine, an actor who came to prominence playing one of those great pop culture rebels, James T. Kirk.

The problem is that most of these characters are either paired with more responsible partners to balance themselves out, or they learn to carry some weight of responsibility. Han Solo went from a smuggler to a freedom fighter as his character arc. Despite his flippant exterior, Axel Foley was motivated by responsibility to his deceased partner. Kirk might be more than a little bit reckless, but he is responsible to manage a starship and his tendencies are offset by both Spock’s rational logic and McCoy’s warm humanism.

Indeed, even the most reckless rebel of all, Ferris Bueller, only really existed to teach Cameron to loosen up, and – despite the fact that the title mentions Ferris and he narrates the story – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is the story of Cameron learning to have a little fun. Indeed, some people might argue that Ferris is a figment of Cameron’s imagination and the embodiment of the poor boy’s long-repressed id.

It’s interesting, then, to look at Rise of the Guardians and Cars 2 in light of that historical approach to irresponsible characters. Cars 2 is essentially focused on the character most beloved by the movie’s young audience. Mater is a less-than-intelligent pick-up truck who finds himself embroiled in international espionage, with hilarious results. However, the movie’s emotional core centres on Mater’s relationship to Lightening McQueen, the lead character of the first film.

Mater is completely self-centred and uncaring about his friend, insisting that McQueen take him along on a world tour and forceably inserting himself into all manner of social situations, all while embarrassing McQueen and being generally insensitive to those around him. At one point, at a Japanese-themed party, he confuses wasabi for pistachio ice cream, despite the attempts by the chef to warn him, and loudly protests to all asunder that the food at this festivity has gone off. Later on, he pretty much wets himself.

Now, reading that, you’d be inclined to believe that Mater’s story would end with the character accepting that he has made some mistakes and that he needs to make some effort to act more responsibly. However, the film doesn’t adopt this attitude. While some of Mater’s property damage and disruption can be written off as the typical collateral damage accrued by an action movie star, a shocking amount of it is due to his own selfishness and irresponsibility. And yet the movie ends with McQueen apologising to Mater for treating him wrong.

“Be yourself here,” McQueen implores at the climax. “And if people aren’t taking you seriously, then they need to change. Not you. I know that, because I was wrong before.” That sounds like a noble enough sentiment, and a fitting theme for a family movie. It doesn’t quite fit, though. People weren’t making fun of mater because of his accent or his use of language. People were calling him out because he was repeatedly causing a scene and being completely insensitive towards others. I know that “be yourself” is a sweet moral for a movie to reinforce, but “be mindful of others” isn’t mutually exclusive either, and I think part of my problem with Cars 2 was the lazy application of that cookie-cutter simplistic moral. Especially from a studio that should have known better.

Rise of the Guardians does slightly better, to be fair. And I like it a lot more than I like Cars 2. However, Jack Frost’s character arc runs into some similar difficulties. To be fair, his irresponsibility is never made as explicit a deal as it is with Mater. The Easter Bunny seems to take a great deal of pleasure in dismissing Jack as “irresponsible” and he does make a major mistake in the middle of the film as a result of his own lack of responsibility. However, that mistake also affords him an opportunity to discover his own back story, and is necessary for his character growth, so I’m a lot more forgiving than I am with “Mater insults Japanese culture because of his own ignorance.”

Indeed, that screw-up allows us to see one brief instance of Jack acting responsibly, even if it’s just “getting somebody out of a mess you got them into in the first place.” It’s not the most elegant of character arcs, and I think that’s the film’s weak spot, but it’s still far more effective than anything Cars 2 has to offer. Jack’s lack of responsibility at least comes from a recognisable place (a desperate desire to be acknowledged and recognised) while Mater’s is rooted in simple selfishness and indifference towards others.

However, the climax of Rise of the Guardians hinges on Jack discovering why he has been chosen. Each of the “guardians” represents some primal ideal. The Easter Bunny, representing the changing of the seasons, stands for “hope.” Santa Clause boasts that his “centre” is “wonder.” We never really get a explicitly statement of what the Tooth Fairy or the Sand Man represent, but he is all about dreams and she is… memory? … I guess?

Anyway, Jack discovers that he is the guardian of “fun” and that his recklessness and unreliability are a virtue rather than a weakness. He single-handedly manages to ward off the boogey man using only the power of said “fun”, and the day is saved. However, it feels like a bit of a disappointing conclusion to his character arc, if only because he doesn’t really evolve. All he does is realise that his main attribute is something to be cherished, rather than tempered.

It feels like a bit of a copout, to suggest that Jack is pretty much fine the way that he is. Indeed, we learn to respect him by flashing back to his life before his time as Jack Frost. We see that – even before the first scene of the film – he was a pretty decent guy, save for his irresponsibility. While this does allow us to sympathise with him, it doesn’t change anything that occurred over the course of the film. He is still irresponsible. He is still reckless. His character arc isn’t about tempering or growing, it’s about Jack and the people around him learning to accept him the way that he is.

It feels a bit strange. Jack is far from perfect. During the scene establishing the action in the present day, he takes a young kid on a whirlwind ride through traffic that could easily have killed his passenger, some drivers or even some innocent pedestrians struck by swirving drivers. There’s even a moment of suspense as the chase ends, as if we’re supposed to worry about the safety of the kid who took this magical mystery tour. That isn’t Jack being “fun” – that’s Jack being potentially indifferent to the consequences of his actions.

We’re told that Jack is responsible for snow days in an effort to get kids to like him. Does that mean he’s responsible for some winter-related fatalities, too? When people slip and fall and break stuff, is that Jack’s fault as well? The movie steers clear of that sort of thing, and understandably so. However, there is at least some inference that helping a city or several of kids slack off school is not the most constructive use of his gifts.

Flashbacks to his life before he became an elemental force suggest that Jack’s devil-may-care attitude towards child safety can occasionally have dire consequences. Given that Jack’s somewhat indifferent attitude towards the safety of kids (even after he was warned about it) led to some less than stellar results, it seems like the movie at least implies that some responsibility on Jack’s part would be a good thing.

However, Rise of the Guardians never really demonstrates that character growth. Instead, it opts – like Cars 2 – for an easier “you’re fine the way you are” resolution. I can’t help but wonder if this is something of a broader trend in popular culture. After all, the “manchild” has become an increasingly popular comedic protagonist in the past decade or so, and maybe this sort of family film is a trickle-down version of that.

After all, Jack and Mater aren’t too different from the modern male comedic lead. Indeed, the title of the movie Grown Ups seems to acknowledge that Adam Sandler has cornered the market on this sort of delightfully irresponsible overgrown child – although Will Ferrell’s Step-Brothers might be the most triumphant example of the genre. Of course, comedies exist to play with and to pick apart familiar archetypes, but there’s certainly a great deal of sympathy for the slacker and irresponsible guy in Judd Atapow comedies.

Sure, there’s occasionally some concession towards maturity or responsibility, but the film often ends on a note of false compromises. Success can be attained without the need to really grow up or to put away childish things, and you don’t have to sacrifice being “cool” in order to be “grown up.” Of course, that last statement is entirely true, but “cool” isn’t always synonymous with being irresponsible or uncompromising – despite what cinema might often suggest. After all, Han Solo was still cool even when helping lead an army to victory, and the majority of James T. Kirk’s character-building moments were rooted in a well-hidden sense of responsibility to his friends or his crew.

I can’t help but wonder if modern family films might have learned a bit too much from the successful comedies of the day, embracing the idea that everybody should be exactly who they feel they should – with no greater care for anybody else around them. Jack Frost and Mater are, it turns out, pretty much fine the way that they are. They don’t need to compromise or change, the world needs to change itself to accommodate them.

I’m not a big fan of cinema as “life lessons”, and I honestly don’t think that cinema has a heavy moral obligation to instil a particular sense of virtue in children or any nonsense like that. After all, isn’t that the role of the parent? And to get into a discussion about whether a particular message is appropriate or inappropriate seems to inevitable circle around the topic of censorship, which is something I’m not fond of – it’s interesting to discuss what a movie says, not to dictate what it should say. I just find it interesting to spot themes and ideas that in the studios’ output. And I think this is a bit of an interesting one.

2 Responses

  1. It makes me wonder if filmmakers often think about the unintended message their stories tell the audience. It’s like the primary theme of “The Wizard of Oz” that you don’t need to leave home because everything you ever need is sitting in your back yard. In other words, we’re never supposed to leave the comfort or confines of our little bubble to expand our understanding of the world but instead be happy to exist exactly as you are without growth.

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