Considering all the time and money that goes into every major studio release, it’s pretty mind-blowing how many movies are released to great fanfare only to be ignored and then promptly forgotten. 2012’s Rise of the Guardians is perfect example of this.
Despite being a DreamWorks Animation effort boasting an all-star voice cast, and backed by a popular series of children’s books as its source material, Rise of the Guardians flopped at the box office. Much like its invisible protagonist, Jack Frost – you’d be lucky if five out of 10 people are even aware it exists, which is a real shame, since Rise of the Guardians deserved to find a bigger audience.
Sure, it’s far from perfect – in particular, the plotting is patchy and the pacing a tad uneven. Yet the movie’s fun basic premise – Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman and Jack Frost form an Avengers-style team to fight the Bogeyman – combined with Peter Ramsey’s sincere, heartfelt direction make for an enjoyable adventure that you’re unlikely to forget.
Based on the Guardians of Childhood stories by William Joyce, Rise of the Guardians introduces us to the amnesiac Jack Frost (Chris Pine), who’s unsure of his purpose as the embodiment of Winter, especially since no ordinary person (including children) can see or hear him.
At the behest of the godlike Man in the Moon (I’m not making this stuff up), Jack is drafted to join the Guardians – Nicholas St. North (Alec Baldwin), E. Aster Bunnymund (Hugh Jackman), Tooth (Isla Fisher) and Sandy – to confront the recently returned Bogeyman, Pitch Black (Jude Law).
Pitch plans to erode the faith children have in the Guardians, replacing their wonder with his fear. While Jack is sympathetic to the Guardians’ cause, his preoccupation with reclaiming his memories and sense of purpose could prove disastrous for the team, not to mention for children everywhere.
Right off the bat, it’s worth saying that Rise of the Guardians is a lot better executed than you might expect given its potentially gimmicky premise (or the “attitude” of some of its character designs).
For starters, David Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay is full of well-drawn characters with clear motivations. Jack is a likable lead, Pitch is a (mostly) credible threat, they (along with North, Bunnymund, and Tooth) have distinctive personalities, complete with their own virtues and vices – or in the case of Pitch, just vices!
These characterisations are bolstered by the top-flight voice cast, who all tackle their roles with admirable gusto. Of the vocal performances, Baldwin is the stand-out as the boisterous yet kind-hearted North, closely followed by Jackman as the crotchety, inexplicably Aussie-accented Bunnymund.
Then there are the visuals. The DreamWorks Animation team drafted in legendary cinematography Roger Deakins to consult on a range of technical lighting issues, and the result is a richly atmospheric film that looks “real”, despite its stylised aesthetic. This carries over into Rise of the Guardians’ set pieces, which match their inventive flair with impressive depth of field effects to deliver some of the most thrilling action sequences ever seen in a 3D animated flick.
But ultimately, what makes Rise of the Guardians work is how much heart it has. Scenes like North explaining the beauty of wonder and its importance to children are scripted with an affecting earnestness by Lindsay-Abaire, and Ramsey oversees them without an ounce of irony. It marks a notable shift away from DreamWorks’ typically snark-heavy cartoon output, and – alongside the more critically and commercially successful How to Train Your Dragon franchise – suggests a refreshing new direction for the studio.
But positive direction or not, Rise of the Guardian has more than a few rough edges. Several plot beats feel a little undercooked – the resolution to the dilemma of Jack’s broken staff chief among them – and the neighbourhood kid characters aren’t integrated into the story as seamlessly as you’d like.
The overarching structure and pacing are off-kilter, too. The plot feels a bit light in the middle, at which point Rise of the Guardians starts to drag slightly, while the climax feels a bit rushed, leaving Pitch’s inevitable downfall to unfold as more of an anti-climax than a rousing victory.
Neither of these shortcomings detracts from Rise of the Guardians’ overall appeal, though. Indeed, the film gets too much right – a fun, affecting script directed with sincerity, breathtaking visuals, and a stellar cast – not to succeed. Besides, this is also a movie that features a dual-cutlass wielding Santa leading an army of Yetis alongside a boomerang-flinging Easter Bunny, and if that’s not worth watching, nothing is!