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“Rise of the Guardians” Review

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Victoria Zelvin

 

“I’m not so sure this looks like a children’s movie,” says a woman to her husband upon watching the preview to Rise of the Guardians while waiting for Wreck-it Ralph to begin. Such seems to be the main hurdle between Rise of the Guardians and its intended audiences. Over-cautious parents look not for storytelling, but rather at the hard-nosed Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), who wields a boomerang like a butterfly knife. Or perhaps they are more focused on the dual-blade wielding, heavily tattooed, muscular, Russian Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin). The art style is also different from typical child-friendly fare, but it really does look fantastic. Really, at this point, I’m just trying to come up with reasons why Guardians, the sophomore directorial effort by Peter Ramsey, is not living up to expectations at the box office in spite of being a thoroughly engaging and lovingly crafted film.

 

The story of Rise of the Guardians is nothing that audiences haven’t seen before. Several reviewers have made the “if the Avengers were about folk tales rather than comic books” comparison, and the description isn’t without merit. The film brings together the great myths of childhood to combat an evil that seeks to feed off the fear of children.

The story begins with Jack Frost (Chris Pine) waking up to a world of darkness, in which the only light is the moon. He has no memory of where he was before and has no notion of what he’s meant to do here. The moon tells him that his name is “Jack Frost” but says nothing else. Jack tries to interact with human beings, but they cannot see him and pass right through him when he tries to reach out to touch them.

See, in this world, mythic creatures do exist, but their power stems from the belief of children. Beings like Jack Frost can exist and can interact with the world, but human beings will not be able to see them. The big four – Santa, Easter Bunny, the Sandman and the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) – can be seen by children worldwide, and have thus been appointed as “Guardians” of childhood by the moon. They convene at the North Pole to discuss the appointment of a new Guardian by the Man in the Moon: Jack Frost. But as that happens, they become aware of a new threat.

The innocence and joy of children worldwide are threatened by a monstrous shadow known as Pitch (Jude Law), a nickname referring to “Pitch Black” and the spirit’s true persona: the Boogeyman. ­­­He wishes to knock the Guardians from their pedestal and show them what it feels like to not be believed in. Early on, he identifies with Jack Frost, calling him a “mutual party” because he too knows what it is to be ignored. In turn, Pitch mockingly says to Jack, “I’m just going to pretend you’re not here, ‘cause I’m not interested. You’re used to that.”

Guardians is at its very best when it slows down enough to explore each of the individual characters, but especially during the holiday/folk related sequences that is each character’s main focus. For example, the sequence in which Jack Frost, Santa, the Sandman and the Easter Bunny have to team up with the Tooth Fairy in order to collect the teeth of the children of the world is one of my favorite sequences in the film. They take what could have been a throwaway line – “Oh, we helped you and here’s a montage about us helping you briefly, but really let’s get back to the story” – into an entertaining competition between the main characters as they try to one-up each other to see who can collect the most teeth. Hilarity ensues.

But, besides being a humorous aside that serves as a perfect foil to the dark sequences of Pitch enacting his plan, the “Tooth Collecting Competition” serves to illustrate the core, interesting character dynamic that is the glue that keeps Guardians together. These mythic creatures, while trying to protect the children of the world, have become caught up in their competition with each other. There is a beautiful bit early on in which Santa calls the Guardians to the North Pole two days before Easter and the Bunny snaps, “If I did this to you two days before Christmas, you’d sic the Yeti on me!”  (Aside: the Yeti actually make the toys for Santa, he just lets the elves think they do the work.) Throughout, there are moments like this between the “one-day” holiday Guardians especially, but the Sandman and Jack Frost are not immune to such childishness. As the movie progresses, this goes from playful banter to a real crux in the Guardians’ relationship with one another. Santa and the Bunny debate over whether Christmas or Easter is more important, the Tooth Fairy obsesses over teeth, and the Sandman delivers mute commentary via sand sculptures. The Guardians compete, they work, but as Santa says, “We work to protect the children! We have no time for… children.” They have essentially lost touch with humanity and need Jack Frost to reconnect them.

Thus far, Rise of the Guardians has not been doing spectacularly well in the box office. This may be because Guardians was released into an unkind field – a field that was already populated by Wreck-it Ralph, as well the widely successful Skyfall and Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 – which is a shame, because Guardians really is a heart-warming holiday film. It has been well received by critics, generally, and has won Hollywood Film Award for Best Animation of the Year. The story treats children with respect; there is no bathroom humor, what bright colors there are is justified by the story, and all the characters are engaging on several appealing levels. If you are on the fence about this film, I would definitely recommend that it deserves a watch in the theaters. I would rank this one up with How to Train Your Dragon, which came out of the same studio. This is one of those movies that has heart at its center, not attitude or flash. This one has substance.