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Guest Movie Review: Rise of the Guardians

After this past weekend, the race for at least one Academy Award category has likely ended. With well over a dozen animated features released in 2012 and only a minor chance of upset, the nominations for Best Animated Feature announced this January should look something like this: Wreck-It Ralph, Disney; Brave, Pixar; Frankenweenie, Disney; ParaNorman, Laika; Rise of the Guardians, Dreamworks. That’s right; Dreamworks finally threw their hat in the ring this year in their annual face-off with Pixar for that coveted statuette. Typically, this has been a one-sided battle; Pixar puts out instant classics like Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3, earning critical acclaim and renown for making films entertaining for both children and adults. Whereas Pixar tends to lean towards quality in their product (once again I’m not counting the second-tier outlier Cars, which only seems to be good at selling assorted merchandise), Dreamworks has constantly leaned towards quantity, pumping their movies out just a little faster and just a little cheaper than their competitors.

Dreamworks’ films also tend to skew kiddish, with Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda obviously appealing more to children than the parents and adults purchasing the tickets. Every once in a while they manage to put out a flawless gem like How to Train Your Dragon, but with the rising number of animation studios in the industry, it’s going to take something different and special to make a major impact in audiences. For Dreamworks, Rise of the Guardians is certainly a good place to start. Based on William Joyce’s Guardians of Childhood book series, the film focuses on a quartet of legendary mythological figures tasked with keeping the children of the world safe. Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and the silent Sandman have been Guardians for much of our human memory. But when the Boogeyman known as Pitch (Jude Law) threatens to overwhelm them, they accept another Guardian to assist them. Jack Frost (Chris Pine) doesn’t remember who he is or whence he came, and has no interest in the rules or boundaries being a Guardian demands; he simply wants to have fun and spread winter cheer. But with Pitch threatening to rule the world and end happiness, Jack must step up and discover the person he is, whether he is ready or not for the experience.

The film’s biggest success has to be its stellar cast and fantastic character designs. Baldwin is of course the big surprise; you can’t hear a lick of Jack Donaghy in the thick Russian accent of a boisterous North Pole warrior with “Naughty” and “Nice” lists tattooed on his arms. Baldwin’s flexibility is an asset, reminding you of his immense talent and perfect comedic timing. Law also astounds, showing off his natural affinity for villainous roles with a treble in his voice that would be scary enough without the animation accompanying it. Pine, Jackman and Fisher are all solid contributors, with Pine once again showing that he can properly headline an ensemble cast when given the opportunity, easily capturing the youthful aspect of his protagonist. Jackman has good chemistry with his co-stars, translates the rough-and-tumble characterization of Australians nicely into his vocal work, and his interplay with Pine makes for some of the film’s better moments. Fisher meanwhile puts forth a genuinely heartfelt performance as the innocent Tooth Fairy, but I would be hard pressed to describe her work as “unique” enough to truly stand out, especially with Baldwin and Law in many of the same scenes.

With that, it’s easy to see why children will love Guardians; with fun, offbeat and memorable icons of child mythology, children who still believe in these legends will be treated to an interesting and heroic tale in that vein. There is also plenty of aside humor in the forms of Santa’s Yetis and Elves and Tooth’s miniature fairies, though it should be noted that few of these stack up against the reigning king of animation sidekicks, Despicable Me’s hilarious Minions. This should be more than enough to keep the rug-rats entertained, and the often humorous interaction between the main characters ought to make for a well-behaved 97 minutes.

Adults will also latch onto the rich potential of the characters and some of the humor, but to be frank the film still skews more than a bit childish. The story revolves around the belief of children making the Guardians strong, but when you’re an adult who has already shrugged off this belief in childhood mythos, the experience becomes little more than a fun fairy tale. While other animated fare like ParaNorman, Frankenweenie and even Hotel Transylvania took that extra step to establish their paranormal elements in a modern representation of our world, Rise of the Guardians simply expects us to accept that Santa and the Sandman exist, and to leave it at that. Again, this works fine for children, but adults need a little more meat to make the whole thing more appreciable.

These aren’t the last of the film’s issues either, simply the most noticeable. The story tends to rely on its humor, which wouldn’t be a problem if the script had more than a few genuine laughs in it. You might find yourself chuckling wryly throughout the movie, but rarely is there a true belly laugh or guffaw to be had. The animation is also hit and miss; vistas and darker elements look beautiful, but too many images, characters and animations look static and unimpressive. It’s not just that I’ve been spoiled by Pixar’s crisp, clear imagery; Rise of the Guardian’s artwork quality is far beneath most modern 3D animated titles. It’s shocking since director Peter Ramsey has enjoyed a long career in art and animation leading up to his directorial debut, and his eye should have been more of a help here. But the biggest complaint I have is the lack of emotional attachment. I’m not ashamed to admit that I wept during theatrical viewings of Wreck-It Ralph and ParaNorman; that was the strength of my attachment to the stories, characters and morals presented. Here however, there is no such connection to the audience. What ought to be happiness is instead amusement; sadness gives way to disappointment; full-teeth smiles are replaced by smirks. It’s a lesson Dreamworks often refuses to remember: make your audiences care. There were a few moments of connection, but I never was as invested here as the best 2012 had to offer.

Rise of the Guardians is better than most non-Dragon Dreamworks pictures, and to be fair it’s still one of the year’s better animated releases. But it’s a film whose concept far exceeds the actual product in quality. A unique idea and a great cast can only carry it so far, and that leaves Guardians as one of 2012’s bigger creative disappointments when all is said and done. You might still enjoy this tale of wonder and magic, and anyone with a family can consider this quality entertainment. But with Wreck-It Ralph still in theaters, you’d really be better off with that, even if you’ve already seen it. Decent animated flicks are a dime a dozen, especially in 2012. The truly great ones have been few and well worth the wait.

 

John C. Anderson is a freelance writer, movie enthusiast and Foursquare Mayor currently living in Boston. He posts his film reviews at Hello, Mr. Anderson… you know, just in case you’re interested.

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