Before The Avengers was released, probably the greatest concern was that, with a cast of multiple heroes – all of whom have strong, distinct personalities – the film would feel over-stuffed and too busy. Somehow, writer-director Joss Whedon managed to hurdle that trap. The makers of Rise of the Guardians, however, are less fortunate.
It’s not there’s little to recommend about the latest effort from DreamWorks Animation. Rise of the Guardians is easily the most beautiful CGI-animated film of the year, with rich colours and vivid world creation that demonstrates incredible attention to detail (just examine Jack Frost’s hoodie for a moment). Although the film’s 3D isn’t exceptional, it certainly adds to the visual richness. It’s just that plot-wise, Rise of the Guardians feels like it contains enough content for a trilogy at least. And the film is only 97 minutes long.
Based on the children’s book series by William Joyce – who was heavily involved in the making of the film – Rise of the Guardians centres on prankster Jack Frost (Chris Pine), who is chosen by the omnipotent Man in the Moon to join the Guardians of Childhood. The current line-up of Guardians, who are all powerful figures of childhood belief, includes Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and mute Sandman. Outsider Jack resists joining this band but it seems he has a vital role to play in stopping the Boogeyman (Jude Law), who is resentful after centuries of being dismissed as a made-up threat. The Avengers parallels are all there – the Boogeyman is very Loki-like – although, of course, the development of Rise of the Guardians predates the superhero blockbuster.
Anyway, some critics have had a knee-jerk reaction to Rise of the Guardians’ “hardcore” reinvention of beloved characters like Santa and the Easter Bunny. Although the former is still associated with a sense of wonder he’s now also a burly Russian, dual-wielding sabres and commanding an army of Wookie-like Yetis. Meanwhile, the Easter Bunny is 6-foot tall, features tattoo-like markings on his fur and rules over a strange Olmec-style kingdom.
Some people have been horrified by this “badass” – or unhinged in the case of the Tooth Fairy – reimagining of such beloved characters. Personally I didn’t have a problem with this, as nods are still made to the conventional depiction of these fantasy figures. More importantly, this new approach seems to be the point: tweaking these icons so they have continued impact on superhero-loving and tech-savvy children of today. A couple of times in Rise of the Guardians the camera scans over a specific child’s toy – a grinning gingerbread man inside a mech – and that pretty much sums up the spirit of the film; a meshing of old and new.
There is plenty of action in Rise of the Guardians – too much actually – but it’s far from the manic goofiness of, say, Madagascar or Over the Hedge. Rise of the Guardians is a pretty serious film, for the most part, with a surprising amount of poignancy.
The problem though, as already mentioned, is that it’s all too much to absorb. Rise of the Guardians feels rushed and overwhelming as the viewer is dragged off to three different guardian worlds, solves the mystery of Jack’s past, bears witness to the Boogeyman’s spiteful plan and is repeatedly dropped into the sideline story of Jamie, a young boy who still believes in Santa and co. despite his cynical friends.
It’s obvious that Rise of the Guardians was intended kick off a new movie franchise. However, it feels as if at some point the filmmakers lost their nerve and stuffed in everything they could in case a sequel wasn’t approved. I would rather have never seen the Easter Bunny’s home if I was only going to visit it for a grand total of 3 minutes. This kind of thing is frustrating, not tantalising.
This isn’t to say that the film is without many highlight moments. Santa’s idiot elves and gruff Yeti are scene-stealers and there are some wonderful light-hearted moments as the Guardians assist each other with responsibilities outside their usual portfolio. In fact, you wish you could spend more time with the heroes in their quieter moments, getting to really know them and their motivations, instead of being subjected to another extended chase or battle.
Rise of the Guardians also lacks subtlety. Viewers are repeatedly slapped with messages of “WONDER!!!” and “BELIEF!!!!,” instead of trusting the audience to discern the magic of the situation for themselves. Children may not notice it but adults will likely roll their eyes at the obviousness.
The end result then is a watchable film that sadly lacks focus. The kids should enjoy Rise of the Guardians and adults can satisfy themselves on the visual feast. It’s just a pity that with this particular animated family adventure, there was evidently no portion control.