IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 96 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
The spirit of winter, Jack Frost, is frustrated by children’s disbelief in him. At the North Pole, North, better known as Santa Claus, is alerted that Pitch Black, the Bogeyman, has returned and is threatening childhood with fear. He summons fellow Guardians the Tooth Fairy (Tooth), the Easter Bunny (Bunnymund) and the Sandman (Sandy). Their job is to safeguard the well being of children. North learns from the Man in the Moon, who chooses all the Guardians, that they are to induct Jack as their new member. The Easter Bunny, although reluctant to include this mischievous trickster, dutifully brings Jack to North’s headquarters and they attempt to swear him in. Jack declines to join, but North persuades him to cooperate for now by explaining their mission and the looming threat of Pitch….
I’ve always felt Dreamworks have it a bit hard. They’ve had their big hits for sure, like the Shrek franchise, but most critics, if not necessarily audiences, tend to almost dismiss Dreamworks in favour of Pixar, which is of course the Studio That Can Do No Wrong Except For The Cars Movies [both of which I actually liked by the way]. For me Dreamworks are as a whole every bit as good as Pixar and probably more diverse, at least tonally and thematically. Recently we had from them the wacky comedy Madagascar 3, and now we have a film which really is very different. Rise Of The Guardians should be, like How To Train Your Dragon, further proof that Dreamworks can out-do Pixar. It’s a far better film than Pixar’s latest, Brave, in every way, and it almost tops the superb Paranorman as the best animated movie of the year, a year which, after a weak start, has become a pretty good one for animated films.
For a start, Rise Of The Guardians boasts the most wonderfully cool idea in ages. A writer called William Joyce was asked by his young daughter if he thought Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny had ever met. This inspired him to write a series of books called The Guardians Of Childhood and actually there was a short animated film based on the idea in 2005 called The Man In The Moon. Isn’t the idea of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman, The Tooth Fairy and Jack Frost really existing to keep children happy and safe from darkness a great one? Even if you don’t especially like children or don’t buy into the messages contained in the film of kids always being safe and the importance of fun, surely there’s the sheer wackiness of not just these characters as a very weird version of The Avengers but their really odd makeovers. Santa as a burly Russian with tattoos [this seems to have annoyed some, yet the familiar cuddly, red-suited figure we know is actually even less close to the original Santa than this one]. The Tooth Fairy as half-woman, half-hummingbird. The Easter Bunny as a very tall, wise-cracking Australian. The Sandman as a strange gold floating figure who can’t speak.
Of course we must not also forget Frost, who flies around causing pranks in a manner very much like Peter Pan, though he may be the character most easily to get used to as few of us probably have much of an idea of what Frost is like anyway, so he was a good choice to begin the film with. The picture actually opens in a somewhat melancholy fashion with Frost wondering how he came to be and failing to be seen by humans, and every now and again it’s headlong pace does pause for quieter and touching moments, like the flashback to Frost’s origin. And all throughout, Frost remains a most sympathetic figure as well as someone we can identify with. He just wants to have fun and be liked.
Of course Rise Of The Guardians is also a superhero action movie, and it proceeds fairly conventionally in this respect, with the first half about the recruiting of Frost and the second half a series of battles with our villain, called both Pitch Black and the Bogeyman. Like many other villains before him, he has an English accent, and turns up to announce his dastardly plan early on so that the good guys can prepare. Said plan is quite scary; to give nightmares to all the world’s children, though the actual visualisation of the spread of darkness is a little old hat and a similar thing has been seen in at least two Marvel films this year. Truth be told the battles get a little repetitive, with endless movement designed to take advantage of the 3D process [of course, I didn’t see it in 3D] as we, the audience, hurtle over the ground and through tunnels, often in one take. The final confrontation doesn’t quite have the excitement it should, but we are invested in the characters and what is at stake, so it doesn’t matter too much.
Guillermo Del Toro executive produced this film and you can certainly see his influence in a number of areas, from design to themes, while cinematographer Roger Deakins, who brought so much to Skyfall, also contributes immensely to this beautiful-looking movie. Visually, in a year with several stunning-looking animated films, it is simply magnificent, the colours often radiating out of the screen in a truly gorgeous way. Of particular note are some of the Sandman scenes where he floats around, spreading gold around, the gold than forming into children’s dreams. There is a sequence near the end which had more of a childlike sense of wonder than any other scene I’ve seen this year. It involves dinosaurs, and evokes the feeling of certain moments in early Steven Spielberg films like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, a feeling that the older Spielberg doesn’t seem able to evoke anymore, and which films tend to steer away from these days because the presiding attitude is to be cynical and cool and cold. I also adored a bit soon after, which involves the archetypal Spielberg shot of someone looking at something in total wonder. Here, it’s lots of kids doing the looking, and I was so touched I forgot I was watching a cartoon.
There is less humour than usual for Dreamworks, but there are still some good laughs, especially the hilarious sight of the Bunny reduced to being a normal sized fluffy bunny, a scene perfectly voiced by Hugh Jackman in a cast who all do a great job with their characters. Jude Law as the Bogeyman continues his recent run of virtually being a good actor and actually manages to sound really sinister, while Chris Pine is actually likeable for once as Frost. I should also mention the film’s terrific score by Alexandre Desplat, which actually contains decent themes, a rarity at the moment. It’s an often rousing piece of work that John Williams could easily have written in the 80’s, and it’s such a shame that this type of scoring is obviously considered old-hat by many producers and we are instead swamped by the mind-numbing garbage of the Media Ventures kind that is now the ‘in-thing’. For me, though, the star of the film is Peter Ramsey, whose first film this is after working for many years as a storyboard artist. He paces his film perfectly and handles the tonal shifts with the skill of a master. It seems that Rise Of The Guardians has been a bit of a disappointment at the box office. This is a crying shame, because it lessens the chance of a franchise. I know I’m forever moaning about sequels, remakes etc, but I would love to see these folk in action again, keeping safe the hopes and dreams of our young.