Rise of the Guardians (review)

Rise of the Guardians green light

I’m “biast” (pro): was intrigued the prospect of Hugh Jackman’s badass Easter Bunny

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. And an Easter Bunny and a Tooth Fairy and a Sandman. And they work together to protect the children of the world. From the Boogeyman (who’s real name is Pitch Black). And they have a new assistant: Jack Frost.

It sounds like the start of a bad joke (“Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny walk into a bar…”). Or, ahem, a high-concept big-budget Hollywood crowd-pleaser for the holiday season. It reeks of the ultimate contrivance, a slapdash attempt to supercharge fantasy for Maximum Festive Impact(TM). So wonder of fairy-tale wonders and against, perhaps, maximum odds, Rise of the Guardians hasn’t a lick of the forced or phony about it. There’s genuine magic here. Dark magic, even. That’s a good thing. The popularity of Harry Potter heartens me, for it has been a solid slap in the face to overprotective adults and a Hollywood that, too often these days, removes all the bite out of movies intended for children. (The awful animated Hotel Transylvania is like that: pretends to be about monsters but avoids any hint of even child-scaled shocks or scares.) Kids like to be frightened.

Take, for instance, Jack Frost (the voice of Chris Pine: This Means War, Unstoppable). Our introduction to his sorcery and his spirit comes in an extraordinary sequence early in the film, in which this ice-bringing sprite gives young Jamie (the voice of Dakota Goyo: Real Steel, Thor) a hair-raising sleigh ride at superspeed along slippery roads — through vehicular traffic! — full of near-misses and the threat of instant death. Well, the apparent threat: Jack ensures that no harm will come to the boy, but Jamie doesn’t know that, and I doubt that would be any consolation to the owners of banged-up cars. The grownup part of me scowls: Why, that Jack Frost is a public menace! Putting kids in danger like that! Causing all those accidents! The kid in me reacts like Jamie: Cool! The edge in Guardians is just a little bit reckless in places… but this is fantasy. I mean, it’s really fantasy, nowhere near realistic-seeming onscreen. This is where kids learn how to begin to experience fear and rage and peril in a safe, controlled environment. That’s a good thing, not something they should be shielded from.

Look: Santa here, dude called North (the voice of Alec Baldwin: Rock of Ages, It’s Complicated), is not the typical “nice” Kris Kringle. He’s more the way that Santa looms in the mind of the toddler screaming in terror on a mall Santa’s lap. He’s got a huge booming voice and an intimidating Russian accent. He’s got “Naughty” and “Nice” tattoos on his massive forearms. He’s not a man to mess with. Bunny (the voice of Hugh Jackman: Real Steel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) is six-foot-one and armed with more than an attitude. Tooth (the voice of Isla Fisher: Bachelorette, Rango) and Sandman (who doesn’t speak) are slightly cuddlier in appearance… at first. Even the deeply adorable stuff — like Baby Tooth, a tiny helper fairy, and Santa’s elves, who are more like an army of rambunctious kittens crossed with Despicable Me’s Minions — cut as often as they cute.

And then there’s Pitch (the voice of Jude Law: Anna Karenina, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), a truly menacing shadow of a figure who can turn Sandman’s dreams into nightmares at a touch and who longs for the same substantiality that the faith of the children of the world give to Santa, Bunny, Tooth, and Sandman; Pitch plans to acquire that faith via their fear. Jack longs for this corporeality, too — no one believes in him and so no one can see him, and he’s lonely for the warmth of belief — and though he agrees to fight on the side of the Guardians against Pitch, it’s not that hard for Pitch to find daggers of sympathy to slide into Jack. The real peril of Guardians, in the hopes and fears of us watchers, is that Jack, as charming a roguish hero as a kiddie movie can offer, might be easily swayed to the Dark Side…

I was the teensiest bit disappointed to learn that this is based on a series of books, by author William Joyce. [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] I had been thinking, Wow, a truly original fantasy out of Hollywood! But still. There’s so much to love about this film: The smart and funny voice performances. The fresh and clever animation that has its own sort of pungency: the slightly punkish tinge to Jack, the unexpectedness of a girl bully (in Jamie’s neighborhood) who wears a tutu. The stunningly original interpretation of a fantastical realm that has been revisited so often already — the North Pole — and gorgeous peeks at realms we rarely see: the headquarters of the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. (The abomination that is Hop has been wiped from my mind, finally.) The strange looming enigma of the Man in the Moon, a godlike presence that is benevolent but distant and inscrutable. The personality all the characters are bursting with, especially in unexpected moments (watch Sandman during the awesome and manic ride in Santa’s sleigh).

I believe.

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