The American film industry operates under the general rule that the narrative of any animated film must be simple enough for a small child to follow completely, a practice that harms kids more than it helps them, in that they are, as a result, very rarely exposed to the kind of sophisticated storytelling that might actually aid in their intellectual development. But the rule is what it is–one of Hollywood’s many business calculations that run counter to the production of quality art–so filmmakers must find other ways to make their movies worthwhile, four of which are the most common. They are: 1) a uniquely inventive general premise (think Pixar’s “Up” or “Wall-E”), 2) characters that elicit sympathy and/or empathy, 3) spirited voice-work, and 4) striking visuals.
One could make the case that DreamWorks’ latest big-budget CG production, “Rise of the Guardians,” implements all four of the above strategies, but it would be difficult to argue that it truly excels at any of them. Nothing about the work stands out like the gleeful dose of ‘80s arcade-game nostalgia of “Wreck-It Ralph,” the spooky atmosphere and humorous supporting characters of “ParaNorman,” or the painterly black-and-white compositions of “Frankenweenie” — the defining traits of superior animated films released this year. Instead, “Rise of the Guardians” mostly just feels like an adequate excuse to get the kids out of the house over Christmas Break.
The concept, based on William Joyce’s chapter books, is mildly imaginative in the way that it forges an ensemble out of new versions of well-known children’s characters. A heavily tattooed Santa Claus (voice of Alec Baldwin); a bird-like Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher); a man-sized, bipedal Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman); and a literal Sandman make up the Immortal Guardians, a team that protects the welfare of children everywhere at the directive of the Man in the Moon. When said welfare is threatened by Pitch the Boogeyman (Jude Law), the Man in the Moon instructs the team to enlist Jack Frost (Chris Pine) to help stop the evildoer. You know where this is going. While a basic plot is to be expected in this genre, as I described earlier, “Rise of the Guardians” would have been a better film had it given its ensemble something more to do than “defeat the bad guy.” An inventive concept only works when the filmmakers engage its possibilities.
The characters are likable and charismatic enough to tap a base level of audience sympathy–who wouldn’t root for a team vying to stop the Boogeyman’s plan to make the lives of children everywhere miserable?–but they certainly don’t tell us anything about ourselves, as those in the best animated films (usually Pixar’s) do. None of them amount to much more than cartoons, though the pedigreed voice-cast commendably bring life and gusto to these new spins on familiar personalities. Alec Baldwin does a cleverly Russian-accented Santa Claus, while Hugh Jackman gets to keep his natural Australian dialect to play an amusingly brash, egocentric Easter Bunny. Chris Pine provides a nicely human tone when Jack Frost is tasked with being the film’s pathos figure, even if the actor fails to make the accompanying trivial flashbacks legitimately poignant.
The animators create beautiful, if not exactly memorable images. Their frequent use of nighttime exteriors gives the movie a distinctly dark blue-filled aesthetic. The design of each individual Guardian is also a highlight; these characters have never been rendered in this way. And while the animators struggle to make the humans in the movie look “real”–still apparently a challenge for even a $145 million production, despite the fact that such a budget would pay for a flawless-looking live-action equivalent–the fluidity of bodily movement is a lot more authentic here than in other recent CG animated films. I won’t remember the visuals of “Rise of the Guardians” in the long-term like I have those of the DreamWorks team’s best films, “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Kung Fu Panda,” but I enjoyed looking at them as the movie unfolded.
“Rise of the Guardians” is more appreciable for what it doesn’t do wrong than what it does right. Director Peter Ramsay and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire deserve special commendation for never pandering to children with infantile humor and for avoiding the non-cinematic, direct-to-video vibe of many other kid-targeted productions. While the bona fide accomplishments “Rise of the Guardians” are modest, it’s not a bad movie to see for lack of something better, a situation that many families with young children who have already seen “Wreck-It Ralph” will face this holiday season.