Rise of the Guardians, it sure has a mother of a high concept: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and other mythological figures from Euro-American childhood are a Justice League-esque team of heroes. Maybe even too high of a concept, in fact, given how the film (adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from the first book in a series by William Joyce) ends up having no real idea of what to do with its team besides assemble them and bask in getting to have the cachet of a pop-culture crossover with the classiness of traditional folklore. Certainly, the paint-by-numbers conflict and the even more stock-issue hero's journey (young man without a past learns who he is and who he can be, as brought to you by the glut of boy-centric animated movies over the past 15 years, and every JRPG ever made) do not live up to the creative potential of a universe where the Easter Bunny is a curmudgeonly Australian voiced by Hugh Jackman, Santa (called "North" here, I assume for maximum cross-cultural marketing, because all of us in the audience are reprehensibly stupid) is an ebullient, sword-wielding Russian voiced by Alec Baldwin, and the Sandman is Harpo Marx as Green Lantern, and all three of them fight supervillains together.
In fact, creativity is not the problem here: if anything, the film suffers from creativity fatigue, as the need to create coherent, consistent worlds for each of the main heroes (also included: the Tooth Fairy, played by Isla Fisher), while also creating unique but complementary designs for all of the magical characters results in such a wide-ranging menagerie of colors and shapes that after a while the cease to feel special at all, and one attends more to their excess than their imagination, and everything seems to be a bit desperately overdone if not downright gaudy (though genuine gaudiness only shows up in the Tooth Fairy's floating gilded palace). In short, Rise of the Guardians is over-designed, hoping to make up with in the business of its world and its characters what it lacks elsewhere.
To be fair, this approach doesn't necessarily fail, though on a purely personal level, I found there to be a bit of an unpleasant darkness to the overall design mentality; undoubtedly, turning figures out of bedtime stories into epic action heroes requires a certain grim panache, and the seriousness and severity of the character design matches well with the self-conscious grandeur of the story. But none of it is any fun. Still, that brings us securely to matters of taste, so let's back out of it: because objectively, again, this isn't "failure". In fact, the design of Rise of the Guardians and the narrative conceit tie into each other relatively well, particularly given an overall muted but richly saturated color scheme (even the brightest colors are less "poppy" than they might be) that subtly but distinctly suggests an old oil painting in its texture and detail and sense of age; and since the movie itself has such a constant awareness of old folk traditions and the characters themselves are so aware of the passage of centuries within their own lives, the feeling of oldness that seeps through the images is very welcome.
(Notice, though, that this is all in reference to the film's design; the animation itself is actually somewhat horrid, with every single human character, but North in particular, moving with blocky inelegance, constrained no doubt by their awful plasticine skin, and shifting their facial expressions as if it takes a great deal of considering what emotions look like before they are able to do so. But human animation has always been DreamWorks's great stumbling block from the time of the Shreks: only in How to Train Your Dragon and maybe Madagascar 3 have the studio's human beings erred on the side of being pleasant to watch).
At any rate, then, Rise of the Guardians is a real looker, totally unlike anything else that DreamWorks has ever done, and just sufficiently different enough from most of what's going on in American animated features right now to seem more revelatory than it actually is, with its heightened sensitivity towards texture and effects animation and all. And this is good, because it gives us something to hold onto in the face of a story that pretty much paints itself by numbers from the very first scene, in which Jack Frost (Chris Pine) floats into existence through a frozen lake, explaining in narration that he has no past and longs more than anything else to find his place in the world. He thinks this means finding out where he came from, but it turns out to also mean fighting to save the innocence of childhood alongside the famous Guardians (a theme harped on with discomfiting insistence for a company so devoted to irony for so much of its existence), banded together to resist the return of their greatest foe, Pitch Black (Jude Law), a boogeyman bent on making all the children of Earth live in constant fear. Would you believe that events transpire such that Jack, and only Jack, is able to stop Pitch? I cannot imagine why you wouldn't. Also, this all takes place in the days immediately before and after Easter, not Christmas, which took my by surprise, though I guess nothing but its release date suggests otherwise.
The musty story is at least somewhat compensated for by the iconic figures involved (though for the same reason, the film is bogged down by a contrived internal mythology that feels a little too obvious in its intentions to leave the world open for an indefinite run of sequels). And about those figures: they succeed in the minimal goal of being, on the whole, interesting enough to spend time with, though only the pantomime antics of Sandman are a real highlight, and the movie itself patently finds North and the Bunny more interesting than the rest of the cast combined; Jack himself seems like an afterthought, given the blandest character design (an immortal embodiment of winter wearing a hoodie?), and Pitch is a uselessly bland villain, whose nightmare horses are far more interesting as villains than he is himself. And surprise, surprise, this is a DreamWorks film and the stunt casting doesn't play at all: Alec Baldwin's Russian accent sounds pretty much exactly like Alec Baldwin doing a Russian accent, and it's distracting enough to be a tremendous liability; nobody else reaches down to that level of badness, though certainly nobody does anything particularly memorable (Pine mutters his way through, Jackman is just cashing a check, Fisher alone tries to find any kind of energy or personality, but it comes off as grating, especially married to her character's hectic design). The film relies far more on the mere fact of "Santa Claus with swords" or "Easter Bunny with boomerangs and a bad attitude" than it does in giving anybody a distinctive, meaningful personality, and the whole film ends up feeling like a gimmick; a handsome, complex gimmick, but still just one more in the line of DreamWorks's impersonal pop culture melanges, thankfully deprived of any obnoxious jokey references outside of the lazy theft of the minions from Despicable Me. To use the movie's own parlance, it has no center; it's a gorgeous but brittle shell, largely fun to watch and hard to remember afterwards.
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