Fan, critic or somewhere inbetween, there is no arguing that DreamWorks have been on the up in the past few years. Having previously output beloved films like Shrek, DreamWorks became more defined for their asinine comedy, evident in films like Shark Tale and Over the Hedge. Since 2008 though, it's been an entirely different story. Kung Fu Panda was fantastic, as was its sequel; Monsters vs. Aliens, Megamind and Puss in Boots were lots of fun, and the studio reached a plateau with 2010's near flawless How to Train Your Dragon - the film that showed that world that DreamWorks could compete with Pixar on pretty much every level. While their latest, Rise of the Guardians, never quite reaches the incandescent brilliance of Dragon, it does rival the masterful storytelling, impeccable visual style and surprising heart of the Kung Fu Panda films.
Rise of the Guardians is based on the Guardians of Childhood book series by William Joyce (The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore), in which childhood icons, like Santa and the Easter Bunny, are reinvisioned. In a world where Santa is trotted out for maybe ten new films every year, it's easy to lose faith in the magic of it all, what Joyce and DreamWorks have done though is to strip away the commercialisation (which is an irony in itself, given how marketable the film is), leaving the core concepts of the characters (a key theme in the film) and building and reinventing them from the ground up. And it just works on so many levels.
One such level is the characters. Obviously, there's only so much credit Joyce, director Peter Ramsey and co. can take for the characters given that they're existing, beloved children's figures. But the brilliance of Rise of the Guardians is that it takes these relatively single-minded, one-dimensional characters and layers them up into a complex ensemble of deep, flawed characters that we genuinely care about. The best aspect to the characters though is that they retain some of the simplicity, the magic, the iconography that makes them so fantastical to generations of children - and indeed adults.
Onto the specifics of the characters: Jack Frost (voice of Chris Pine) is the focal point of the film. An over three hundred year old perpetual teenager who died in circumstances only revealed towards the end of the film, later reawakening as a magical being, with control over ice and snow. The stigma to these new found powers, though, is that - because, after all, this isn't a superhero movie, this is a film about belief - nobody believes in Jack, so he wanders the planet, causing mischief, alone and unseen. Jack doesn't mope though, he has a kind of tragic acceptance about him. It's a melancholy premise for a main character, and one DreamWorks certainly wouldn't have approached ten years ago; but it's handled impeccably.
Jack seems quite content, if not happy, to wander around towns alone, bringing snow and a chill in his wake. Until, that is, he's summoned - less than gently - by the Guardians. Here's where the comparisons with The Avengers come in in full force: the Guardians are a motley crew of childhood figures, comprising of Santa Claus, now called North (voice of Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny, now Bunnymund, or just Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy, now Tooth (Isla Fisher), and the delightfully silent Sandman, Sandy. The Guardians are tasked with protecting the children of the world, and as they face their greatest threat, from the villainous, and dastardly complex, villain Pitch (Jude Law), they decide to add another member, another Guardian: Jack Frost.
What follows from here is a tense, epic and visually immersive spectacle that simultaneously represents the cutting edge of technology, and the classic values of the films we all, from every generation, remember from childhood. It's been said frequently of Guardians, and it's absolutely true, this is a film that makes you feel young again, that recaptures the magic, and that's nothing but a good thing. It evokes the magic of youth, and the last ten/fifteen minutes really reminded me of E.T.. It brings to mind my favourite quote, one we have emblazoned on the blog's sidebar, by the immortal Walt Disney:
"In planning a new picture, we don't think of grown-ups, and we don't think of children, but just of that fine, clean, unspoiled spot down deep in every one of us that maybe the world has made us forget and that maybe our pictures can help recall."
As touching and nostalgic as the general tone of the film is, there's much warmth to be found in the character-relationships too. North is great, and voiced sublimely by Alec Baldwin, balancing the goofy comedy well with the serious contemplation about what the point of it all is. Bunny is absolutely hilarious, and very badass as a ranger-type, and he's definitely one of my favourite characters in the film; his and Jack's competitive-but-affectionate Gimli-Legolas relationship was great too. Sandy is likely most people's favourite: comically brilliant with his pantomime and theatricality, as well as his quite surprising toughness. Sandy is also the source of the film's saddest scene - which I won't delve into anymore, to keep this review relatively mild spoiler-wise. In fact, the only character I didn't really connect with was Tooth, whose main purpose seemed to be to swoon over Jack.
One of the film's highlights as well, though, was its villain. Pitch is an absolute delight, he's cunning, he's witty, but at the same time he's dangerous and unstable. His movement in and out of the shadows (as well as the nifty little effect of directing sound to only particular speakers at a time, giving the effect he was circling around the audience) was menacing and clever. A very strong vocal performance by Jude Law also adds some gravitas to the role.
The story's simple enough, the villain is clear, it's apparent that the bulk of the movie will be about Jack, and will culminate with him deciding to become a Guardian. But it's what happens along the way that's so marvellous; Jack is as devilishly complex as Pitch, and parallels are easily drawn between the protagonist and antagonist. Pitch is haunted by the idea of not being believed in, and by not being accepted by the Guardians, so too is Jack, so there's an undercurrent of wonder around whether or not Pitch can sway Jack - forgive the cliché - to the dark side. So, it adds an extra element of interest to the film, even if it's pretty apparent where Jack's allegiances will ultimately lie. There are a few twists and turns along the way as well, which offsets the predictability of some aspects of the film. I've read a few critiques of it, but I personally really liked the Man in the Moon theme throughout, it was elegantly simple and actually spoke to quite complex ideas about faith in a silent, often seemingly absent, yet powerful figure.
The relative thematic simplicity of the story and characters thus allows the artists at DreamWorks to play about with the film's execution. The result is a beautiful film, executed with flair by Peter Ramsey and his team, with lots of utterly fantastic visuals and great, vivid and inventive battle scenes. Cinematography legend Roger Deakins apparently provided some visual consultation on the film, and it's evident in so much as the film is stunning - I actually wish I'd saw Guardians in 3D, as you can really sense the places where it would've enhanced the story.
This is certainly one of DreamWorks' more sophisticated films, given its more damaged, three-dimensional characters and often darker elements (surely due in some way to executive producer Guillermo del Toro's influence), but it's still very funny. In fact, like ParaNorman this year as well, I was surprised at just how funny it was. It's not the crude humour or pop culture jokes of some earlier DreamWorks films, but rather a natural, earned, comedy that works so much better. The elves clearly take a page out of Despicable Me's Minions' playbook, but the yetis were the personal highlights for me - I laughed hard at pretty much every appearance of them. Bunny's also a hoot, particularly in one scene towards the end of the film when he suffers adverse effects of children's lessening belief in him.
Rise of the Guardians' comedy is outweighed by how touching (and fun) it is though, you really come to care for the characters, and much like The Avengers, you'll be cheering thoroughly by the end, spurred on by Alexandre Desplat's fantastic and very superhero-esque score that just evokes more Avenegrs comparisons (particularly "Calling the Guardians").
Rise of the Guardians is by no means a perfect film though; there's some very cheesy, kid-aimed dialogue in places, and while it's a sophisticated film, David Lindsay-Abaire's screenplay often isn't. It was a little jarring when we're watching Jack confront Pitch when, it later transpires, there's a very important battle, integral to the story, going on - it felt a little anticlimactic that we didn't see any of it.
So, all in all, while it never reaches the almost insurmountable heights of How to Train Your Dragon, Rise of the Guardians is a fun, magical and utterly enchanting film, directed stylishly by Ramsey, though a lot of credit is due to the wonderful William Joyce - whose late daughter the film is touchingly dedicated to. Much like The Avengers, you'll thoroughly enjoy almost every minute of it, and I can only hope it does a bit better at the box office, because I sure would love to see a sequel.