Considering all the time and money that goes into each and every major studio release, it’s pretty mindblowing how many movies are released to no fanfare, and then promptly forgotten.
2012’s Rise of the Guardians falls squarely under this banner. Despite being the product of DreamWorks Animation, boasting an all-star voice cast, and drawing on a popular series of children’s books as source material, it flopped at the box office, and – much like its invisible protagonist – you’d be lucky to meet someone who even knew it existed.
That’s a real shame, as thanks to its smart approach to a 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 – it’s actually a surprisingly sincere, heartfelt and entertaining adventure.
Based on the Guardians of Childhood stories by William Joyce, Rise of the Guardians introduces us to the amnesiac Jack Frost (Chris Pine), who is as unsure of his purpose as the embodiment of Winter, especially given that no ordinary person (including children) can see or hear him.
Thanks to his incredible arctic powers, not to mention a recommendation by 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, in order to confront the recently returned Bogeyman, Pitch Black (Jude Law).
Pitch plans to destroy the faith children worldwide hold in the Guardians, replacing their wonder with his fear. While Jack is sympathetic to the Guardians’ cause, his preoccupation with reclaiming his memories and purpose could prove disastrous for the team, not to mention for children everywhere…
Like I said earlier, Rise of the Guardians is a lot better executed than you might expect.
David Lindsay-Abaire’s script is full of mostly well-drawn characters with clear motivations. Jack is a likable lead, Pitch is a credible threat, and they – along with the rest of the rest of the Guardians – each have distinctive personalities, complete with their own virtues and vices (or in the case of Pitch, just vices!).
These characterizations are bolstered by the uniformly stellar voice cast, with Baldwin a stand-out as the boisterous yet kind-hearted North, and Jackman a delight as the crotchety (and inexplicably Australian-accented) Bunnymund.
In fact, if there’s weak link in the roster, it’s the perpetually silent Sandy, although this is made up for by him taking centre stage during several of the film’s biggest, and most emotional, moments.
And what moments they are – each set piece being inventive, varied and undercut with a real sense of urgency and peril.
Of these, a sequence where the other Guardians lend Tooth a hand with her nightly duties is a particular highlight, as it allows Lindsay-Abaire and director Peter Ramsey to not only showcase the different abilities and styles of each character, but also to flesh-out the team dynamics – including their good-natured rivalry – as well.
This creativity doesn’t stop with the action either, but rather courses through the rest of Rise of the Guardians, resulting in more than a few clever ideas, not all of which are shoved in our faces (my personal favourite is the entrance to Pitch’s lair, which is fittingly located under a scary-looking bed).
But most impressive of all is the sense of poetry underlying proceedings, thanks at least in part to executive producer Guillermo del Toro.
Scenes like those with the Man in the Moon, or when North explains the beauty and value of wonder in the lives of children, are both lyrical and genuinely touching, and help separate Rise of the Guardians from the typically snark-heavy DreamWorks output, placing it alongside the studio’s equally earnest – yet more financially and critically successful – How To Train Your Dragon series.
This poetry is echoed in the stunning visuals by the DreamWorks Animation team, which benefit immeasurably from cinematography consultant Roger Deakins. Deakins – the greatest living director of photography to never win an Oscar (he’s been nominated nine times!) – advised the animators on a range of technical lighting issues, and the result is a richly atmospheric film that looks truly real, despite its stylised aesthetic.
All this isn’t to say that Rise of the Guardians is by any means perfect.
For starters, the narrative structure is a little wonky at times, and the plot feels a bit light in the middle. Moreover, the climax seems a bit rushed, as does Jack’s recovery after having his staff broken (SPOILERS – he just fixes it magically after like, two tries).
It’s also fair to say that the children characters aren’t integrated into the plot quite as seamlessly as you’d like, and despite being established early on, their reappearance much later on means that they almost seem to come out of nowhere (although the role the play – as the vessels for wonder itself, and therefore its guardians as well – is nicely realised).
But maybe the biggest stumbling block will be that faced by the adult audience; whilst kids are pretty much a dead-cert to love Rise of the Guardians, some adults might struggle with its superhero-meets-folklore concept and slightly saccharine ending.
All in all, Rise of the Guardians stands as one of the better animated efforts that next to nobody ever saw, owing to its fun and affecting script and strong cast of vocal performers.
It’s also a movie that features a dual-cutlass wielding Santa leading an army of Yetis alongside a boomerang-flinging, ninja Easter Bunny, and if that alone doesn’t it make it worth watching, then nothing is!