Rise of the Guardians doesn’t entirely look or feel like what we’ve come to expect from DreamWorks Animation. Under Peter Ramsey’s direction (his first feature), the images have a burnished, almost pewter-tinted glow, a glint of long-forgotten memory, very different from the bright, semi-naturalistic animation of the studio’s Shrek, Madagascar or Kung Fu Panda franchises. David Lindsay-Abaire’s script (he’s a Pulitzer Prize winner for his play Rabbit Hole, although he also eo-wrote the script for Robots) is similarly light on the self-aware, smart-ass quipping that’s usually a DWA trademark, even in its more prestigious projects like How To Train Your Dragon.
Not that smart-assery is entirely absent. The main protagonist of Guardians is Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine), famed for his ability to bring about ice and snow at will (think of him as the old-school Mr. Freeze). In this telling, Jack is a perpetual adolescent, unable to recall his human past and with a fair-sized chip on his shoulder. He brings along plenty of sarcasm and disdain when he’s unceremoniously summoned by the Guardians, folklore figures Santa Claus, here called North (Alec Baldwin), E. Aster Bunnymund AKA the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and the silent Sandman, to aid them in a quest. The Guardians, who seem to have been organized originally by the God-like Man in the Moon (also voiceless) into an Avengers-type super-group, are doing battle against Pitch, better known as the Boogyman (Jude Law), who in the nature of these kinds of tales is determined to turn the dreams of children everywhere into nightmares, deprive said kids of their belief in fantasy, and thus take over the world. Jack, a reluctant hero, naturally becomes the key figure in battling back the forces of evil, discovering his past and his destiny in the process.
The downside of the mostly earnest approach Guardians takes is that it puts more emphasis on the narrative, and as a piece of storytelling, Guardians (based on novels by William Joyce, who’s worked on several animated films himself) isn’t all that original. I wish the story didn’t ultimately hinge on one little boy in a small town who has to keep believing or else darkness will overtake the world, because that little boy should be paid time and a half for all the children’s entertainments that rely on him. Nevertheless, the movie has a lot of charm. Santa has been configured as an Eastern European strong man, wonderfully given voice by Baldwin (in this version, it’s the North Pole Yeti who actually make Santa’s toys–the elves only think they do), while the Easter Bunny, played by Jackman with his own Australian accent (Jack insults him by calling him a kangaroo) and a quick temper, is a hoot. The Tooth Fairy is a flirty figure, and Sandman is beautifully visualized as a constantly morphing array of dreams. The only tiresome figures, sadly, are Jack and Pitch. Jack goes through the paces of every other young hero who has to work through his resentments on the way to finding his true purpose in life, and Pitch is interchangeable with all the other fantasy and superhero saga villains of the past decade or so. Given that, however, Pine and Law do a fine job of personalizing their generic roles.
Guardians delivers on the action and comforting story arcs we expect from family animations, but it’s memorable mostly for its visuals, which are quite gorgeous. (The 3D surcharge buys the usual objects protruding from the screen and a few vertiginous rides on Santa’s sleigh.) The lovely hand-toned quality of the images give the film a nostalgic feel, even though it seems to be set in the present day, and the opulent sets, like those for Santa’s palace and workshops, spill over with imaginative details. When the story becomes less than thrilling–which happens from time to time–one can just sit back and enjoy the design.
As, remarkably, the only major new animated film to open during the holiday season (Disney is also re-releasing a 3D conversion of Monsters Inc, Rise of the Guardians is almost certain to have wide success, and not surprisingly, the movie’s conclusion leaves things wide open for further chapters in a franchise. This isn’t as exciting a prospect as the fact that we’ll soon be getting a sequel to How To Train Your Dragon, still the best of the non-Shrek DreamWorks Animation projects. Nevertheless,Guardians is relatively high-class and accomplished, and family audiences can do, as they often have done, much worse.