Many Christmases ago, I remember getting into a heated debate with my parents over whether or not The Nightmare Before Christmas qualified as a Christmas movie. I don't remember why, and I don't remember what arguments were made (it was surely some stupid childish debate, anyway), but I'd assume I felt that way because it's really the monsters who run the show. Then again, the movie's central premise is about monsters discovering the joyful spirit of Christmas. In the end, Nightmare qualifies both as a Halloween film and as a Christmas film. This is likely why that movie -- unlike such films as Trick 'r' Treat or Elf -- is traditionally played on heavy rotation in both times of the year. And of course, with two peak seasons of screenings come twice the merchandise sales and twice the chance of getting a cult following.
So here's Rise of the Guardians, a film that not only features Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but the Sandman and the Tooth Fairy as well. The film was based on a novel written by William Joyce, who also exec-produced the film and made an animated short as a test reel for the big screen adaptation. I'm tempted to call this film a "means" adaptation made with the express purpose of creating a new cash cow, but feel free to draw your own conclusions.
Really, this whole conceit sounded so stupid when I first heard it. Call me crazy, but the notion of these childhood myths banding together into some kind of superhero team sounded laughable to my ears. But then I saw the name of Guillermo Del Toro. And then I saw the trailer.
By the time the positive reviews came streaming in, I knew I had to give this film a watch. I had to see for myself how they pulled this whole thing off. As it turns out, they made the ridiculous conceit work by tacking it onto a hopelessly formulaic story.
To take it from the top, the premise doesn't actually begin with any of the four characters listed. In truth, the premise actually starts with the moon. More specifically, the man in the moon. Apparently, it's he who chooses the Guardians and directs their operations, though he does so in a very laissez-faire manner. It's never exactly clear who the man in the moon is, where his powers come from, or why he doesn't fix everything his own self. The man in the moon never even verbally addresses the other characters, he just sends down the occasional sign whenever he feels like it. Whatever.
Anyway, back in the Dark Ages, there was this creature called the Bogeyman, otherwise known as Pitch Black (voiced by Jude Law). He's a creature of imagination, just like Santa Claus et al., except that Pitch deals in fear. He led all of civilization into despair and distrust until the moon sent forth the guardians to spread hope and fight back. Eventually, Pitch was forgotten and cast aside like... well, like a bad dream.
Flash forward to a few thousand years later. Somehow, Pitch has found a way to manipulate the Sandman's dream-shaping abilities to turn good dreams into nightmares (which are symbolized, I should add, by way of black horses. They're actual night-mares, har har). In this way, Pitch has started building his own powers by spreading fear through nightmares.
(Side note: Sadly, this is not the Sandman we're dealing with. If it was, this movie would be over in five utterly mind-blowing minutes, at most.)
Eventually, Pitch gets to be so powerful that he can start interfering with the Guardians' activities, tricking kids into thinking that they don't exist. This gets to be a huge problem, since the Guardians' powers and vitality depend on humans' belief in them. This leads to a Catch-22: How can the Guardians use their powers to encourage belief, if they need the belief of others to get their powers? Not surprisingly, the movie never addresses this.
Anyway, Pitch gets to be such a huge problem that the moon feels compelled to add a new Guardian to the ranks. Enter Jack Frost.
Jack (voiced by Chris Pine) is a prankster who was blessed by the moon with eternal youth, flight, and the ability to freeze water, though he has no idea how or why. The moon also made him invisible and intangible for reasons that are similarly unknown.
The good news is that Jack is a very fun character. He has a great sense of humor, and his icy antics are a lot of fun to watch. The bad news is that he's a character tortured by a past he can't remember. And he only gets more predictable from there.
From start to finish, Jack's development arc is a flagrant copy/paste job of The Monomyth. It's all there, folks. The refusal of the call, the great revelation, the atonement, everything. The filmmakers didn't even bother trying to hide it. You could honestly set your watch to the story beats in Jack's development as a character.
This might not be such a huge setback, except that Jack is the main character of this story. He's the protagonist, which effectively means that the entire movie is built around his development arc. That's a big problem with such a predictable and formulaic arc as this, especially when other aspects of the movie are aggressively shoehorned to fit the formula.
Take Santa Claus (voiced by Alec Baldwin) for example. Jack needs a mentor, so Santa Claus is cast into that role. Granted, that does make a lot of sense. He's by far the most famous member of the team, not to mention the most versatile in ways of magic and technology, so of course he'd be the field leader of the group. By extension, that makes him a natural choice for Jack's mentor.
Then we've got Easter Bunny (voiced by Hugh Jackman). He's cast as the rival who frequently clashes with Jack and refuses to accept him as a member of the group, though we know full well that they eventually reconcile. Sure, this makes a modicum of sense, as the Easter Bunny represents spring and Jack Frost represents winter, so it's entirely plausible that they might not see eye-to-eye. That said, it's such a shame that the banter and the conflict between these two characters was so dreadfully boring.
Last and worst is the Tooth Fairy (voiced by Isla Fisher). She was assigned the pitiable task of playing Jack's love interest. That was a stupendously bad move. Their romance arc is so poorly developed, so void of chemistry, so inconsequential to the overall plot, and so utterly ridiculous that it barely deserves to be called as such.
There's also Sandman, who is inexplicably mute. I'd discuss his pivotal place in the story and how his part was forcibly reshaped by the cookie-cutter plot, but I can't find a way of doing that without spoilers. Moving on.
Not content to lift from a storytelling structure that's centuries old, the film went and ripped off another film as well. Alas, the film went and made Santa's elves into a carbon copy of the Minions from Despicable Me. I can only assume that this was done for merchandising purposes, given how successful those annoying yellow monsters are, because Santa's elves have precisely zero impact on the film. They provide comic relief and fail miserably at it, nothing more. Even in the film's universe, the elves are totally worthless: Santa's toys are all made by yetis now. The elves have no purpose in the workshop, they have no purpose in the film, get them out of here.
Finally, it's worth pointing out that in this movie's universe, the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus control the existence of their respective holidays. If Santa can't make his rounds, for example, Christmas is cancelled. Apparently, the companies and corporations who spend billions of dollars in advertising and make billions of dollars in revenue off of these holidays don't get any say in the matter. Then again, of course the movie doesn't go in that direction. It isn't that kind of movie.
The movie makes itself clear that it was meant for the young and the young at heart. The film's messages of creativity, faith, and optimism in children are all heartfelt and presented in ways that will surely resonate with the target audience. It certainly helps that these themes are all squarely in the wheelhouse of one Mr. Del Toro.
It's tempting to cut the film a bit of slack for being predictable when it was clearly meant for younger kids. I'm sure that many film critics and moviegoers will. But I won't. Sorry, but I can't forgive the film for being this rote, especially when so much talent and creativity went to every other aspect of this film's production.
For all of my gripes, there are three very important reasons why this is a very fun movie to watch. Firstly, the visuals are superlative. The character designs are wonderful, the Guardians' powers were presented in some very creative ways, the sets looked amazing, the 3D effects were great, and the animation kicks all kinds of ass. The action scenes looked absolutely incredible, and there were some flight sequences that left my jaw on the floor. Of course, I'm sure it helps that Roger Fucking Deakins was on hand to lend his inestimable skill as a visual consultant.
Secondly, the voice cast is surprisingly good. In all honesty, the principal voice cast was one of the main reasons why I didn't think this movie could work. Okay, maybe I could understand Isla Fisher as the Tooth Fairy because why not? Also, I'll admit that Jude Law's involvement had me rather interested, since I've been eager to see him play another slimy villain after his performance in Road to Perdition.
Aside from that, why was 32-year-old Chris Pine voicing a character stuck at age thirteen? In what sane universe does "Russian accent" plus "Santa Claus" equal "Alec Baldwin?" Sure, Hugh Jackman seems like logical casting to voice an Australian Easter Bunny, but why the hell was the Easter Bunny Australian to begin with?
Fortunately, the voice actors all redeem themselves wonderfully. It sounds like they were all having a great time in the recording booth, and that goes a long way toward selling these characters. I could never have believed, for example, that Chris Pine was voicing a character a third his age, but Heaven help me, he sold it like a champ.
Finally, there's the movie's secret weapon. The true reason why this movie was so much fun to watch and managed to succeed in spite of its pathetically predictable story. I'm referring to Alexandre Desplat, who composed what has to be the single greatest score I've heard in any movie all year. That's not a statement I make lightly, but it's the honest truth. The music was so powerful that even in the film's most predictable moments, it was still more than enough to coax an emotion out of me. There's no possible way I can heap enough praise onto the music for that much.
Ultimately, it's the sterling animation, the surprisingly good voice cast, and the absolutely phenomenal score that elevate Rise of the Guardians from "passable" to "fun." I so badly wish that I could give the film a more enthusiastic recommendation, but it's hard when the story is this formulaic and predictable. It's a damn shame that this movie was blessed with so much creativity in every aspect of its development except the one where it mattered most. All the same, Peter Ramsey turned in a fine picture for a first-time director, and I look forward to seeing more from him.
I wouldn't call this "must-see" material, but it's definitely good enough for parents who've already taken their kids to see Wreck-It Ralph. If you're curious, go ahead and give the film a look. If you're so moved as to try the 3D option, go for it.