One of the grim theorems of life is that the death of childhood wonderment is inversely proportional to the onset of adulthood. I remember the feeling of victory when, at age 7, I figured out that not only did Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny have the same handwriting as my mother, but that she was behind this vast Holiday Illuminati-like conspiracy; it’s what I imagine Dan Brown feels like every morning before he rolls around naked on a pile of money. I also remember the emptiness at realizing that Santa and his holiday cohort were just a front, shell companies funneling naiveté and unmarked, non-sequential joy into my childish brain’s off-shore Cayman account.
This struggle over belief is by no means a new one; it’s been covered in nearly any film with “Santa” in the title. In Rise of the Guardians the battle of belief versus cynicism is instantly familiar, but it has a higher sense of stakes than others who have wondered why someone like my mother would be so invested in maintaining the myths on which we were raised.
The fact that Rise of the Guardians is not only good, but one of my favorite films I’ve seen this year is a twist ending that would make M. Night Shyamalan cry bitter, jealous tears. Despite a lousy title (a dubious honor it shares with this weekend’s other big release Silver Linings Playbook) and misleading marketing, director Peter Ramsey, writer David Lindsay-Abaire, and producer Guillermo del Toro have crafted an 3D animated film with all the technology and trappings of the modern era, but have also managed to retain the edge of childhood favorites like Little Nemo in Slumberland, Nightmare Before Christmas, and The Rescuers. And, no, for the last time, it’s not about those Ga’Hooledamn owls.
The premise behind the film is easy to digest: chosen by the Man in the Moon, a cadre of mythological characters – namely Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), and the Sandman – defend childhood from the forces of fear and cynicism, which manifest themselves in the spectacularly voice-acted Pitch Black (Jude Law), better known as the Bogeyman. Except now Pitch is back in full-on Bogeymode and has corrupted the Sandman’s dream-sand into nightmares, manifested as grisly spectral horses, which he uses to sabotage the holidays, causing children across the world to lose faith in their childhood heroes and the Guardians to lose their powers. Yet, there are other non-Guardian myths, too, like Jack Frost (Chris Pine), a long-forgotten character who has not only lost his purpose in life, but children across the world have lost their belief in him. Belief equals power. See where this is going? It is Jack who must answer Ol’ Moon Fury’s call to action and, well, save Christmas (and Easter, the loss of teeth, sleeping, you name it).
The characters are immediately familiar, but it’s the twist that Rise of the Guardians puts on them that make them stand out from the pack. Santa isn’t a jolly old fatso; he is a tattooed Russian Cossack of a man. And elves don’t make the toys in his workshop – yetis do. Motherf@$%ing yetis. Oh, there are elves too, but they’re more of an adorable hobgoblin/elf hybrid than anything else. Isla Fisher’s Tooth is a creepy-cute hummingbird of a creature, sending her feathered flock across the globe to trade teeth (a surprisingly valuable commodity, the film reveals) for treats! The Easter Bunny, better known as Bunnymund, is an Australian roughneck with boomerangs and sentient egg golems to do his bunny bidding. Sandman, who keeps it casual and goes by Sandy, is completely silent, expressing himself through visually stunning dream-sand pantomime. Last, but not least, there’s Jack, the put-upon, but lovable troublemaker and bestower of snow days who hasn’t been taken seriously until now. These are characters you don’t just want to believe in – you want to hang out with them.
Where did these clever takes on beloved characters come from? When his then-six-year-old daughter Mary Katherine asked author/illustrator William Joyce if Santa Claus hung out with the Easter Bunny, being the “Father of the Year” candidate that he is, Joyce assured her that they did, and slowly created a living, breathing world and history for these mythical characters to inhabit. These stories became his Guardians of Childhood novels, which give detailed origin stories for the Sandman, Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Man in the Moon, and provided a strong basis for Rise of the Guardians.
One of the film’s biggest merits is that it almost wholesale skips over origin stories, which seem to have become something of narrative Kryptonite over the past year. Case in point: anyone on Twitter following The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, Prometheus, the list goes on. But their complaints aren’t without merit – do we really need to learn the origins of larger-than-life figures like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, the Man in the Moon, etc.? No, no we don’t, and that’s something Rise of the Guardians smartly avoids. These aren’t fresh-faced freedom fighters; they’re presented as proud vanquishers of Bogeymen past, resting on their well-deserved laurels. As a result, the film has momentum from the get-go and the pieces of backstory they do reveal (namely our hero Jack Frost’s) feel earned rather than coming across as a narrative crutch like they can in other films where we already know many of the characters.
As you may recall, I was treated to an advance screening of the film at DreamWorks with a veritable West Coast Avengers of other bloggers and journalists, where we watched behind-the-scenes presentations on how they took the film from concept to completion. For those who are interested in that kind of thing, I recommend picking up a copy of Insight Edition’s excellent The Art of Rise of the Guardians. It has enough essays, artwork and production notes to satisfy even the most diehard of Joyce fans and will class up any coffee table. But, I digress.
I’ll be honest – I was dreading seeing this film. The last thing I wanted to do was sit through another so-called animated family feature with assembly line gags, flimsy plot and cookie-cutter characters designed to sell toys this Black Friday. Thankfully, all of my fears were immediately assuaged. Guardians is one of the best animated features I have seen all year. It’s not just a family film; it’s a superhero film, a holiday film, a children’s movie that retains the edge that defined the children’s films of my youth. Above all else, it’s fun, which is more than can be said for most children’s films nowadays. And, dear lord, does it look good. I’m not a fan of 3D, generally, but the animators behind this film have created a lush, beautiful series of worlds for these characters to inhabit. Don’t even get me started on the particle effects – mainly because I can’t explain them – but just know that they look great. So, this Thanksgiving, whatever you believe in, you can rest easy that there’s at least one film at the box office worthy of your hard-earned cash: Rise of the Guardians.