Rise of the Guardians has an absolutely brilliant high concept at its heart. Basically, it’s The Avengers but with fables and legendary characters. So we get a super hero team composed of Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy, The Sandman and their newest member, Jack Frost.
I am an enormous fan of postmodernism and the growing trend in pop-culture for remixing and re-imagining classical fictional concepts. Rise of the Guardians fits into a tradition that includes works like The Sandman (the comics by Neil Gaiman and various artists), League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (again the excellent comics by Kevin O’Neil and Alan Moore and not the terrible movie), Sluggy Freelance’s Holiday Wars story arc or even lots of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld work and especially Hogfather. There’s something I just find incredibly satisfying about taking existing characters and re-imagining them to work in a new context.
Having decided the context is basically a super-hero team the reinventions on display here are really clever. Santa becomes North (Alec Baldwin), a Cossack wielding dual cavalry sabers and leading an army of Yeti’s with his naughty list magically tattooed on one arm and his nice list on the other. The Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) becomes a man sized rabbit armed with boomerangs and a network of magic tunnels that lets him travel anywhere on Earth in a near instant. The Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) is the leader of a race of hummingbird like creatures that safeguard teeth because teeth contain childhood memories. The Sandman is literally made of sand, as are dreams and he shapes his body and his sand to make dreams, or modes of transport, or weapons. Finally we have Jack Frost (Chris Pine), a trickster spirit in a hoodie who can glide on winds and freeze things with his magic staff.
These five join forces to fight Pitch Black (Jude Law), the literal boogeyman, who is aiming to corrupt the dream’s of children so that they no longer believe in the guardians and he can rule a world of fear.
The ideas and concepts being played with in Rise of the Guardians are really intelligent and brilliantly thought out. For example, as Pitch’s plans expand and belief in The Guardians fail North, Easter Bunny and Tooth lose their powers but Jack Frost doesn’t, making him their most powerful tool against Pitch. Initially you question why this would be the case since it seems like a plot device but when you think about it it’s perfectly logical. This is because Christmas, Easter and Tooth Fairies are entirely human constructs, without Human’s to do it their would be no Christmas. However frost still exists even if nobody believes in Jack Frost so of course Jack Frost still has his power’s even without belief, belief just makes him stronger.
The film is full of cool ideas like this that it doesn’t feel the need to explain, trusting the audience to “get” the reasons why these characters have been changed and how the fantasy world presented works. Considering this is a kid’s film the lack of obvious exposition is really refreshing and it enhances the pleasure of the re-imagining. If the film makers felt the need to explain every change it takes away the fun of figuring it out for yourself, which really is Rise of the Guardian’s biggest appeal.
Outside of how well it deals with its high concept though how does it work as a film? Sadly it is only okay on the narrative level.
Rise of the Guardians starts with Jack Frost being born on a frozen lake. He is a complete Tabula Rasa, not knowing who he is, where he came from or what his purpose in life is but apparently knowing his name and quickly learning he has the powers to glide on winds and create ice.
Unfortunately he’s also invisible and intangible to everyone in the world leaving him entirely alone.
The film then flashes forwards 300 years to modern day where Jack spends his days playing with kids without their knowledge, starting snowball fights, guiding sleds, causing snow days and generally having fun from the sidelines.
That carefree life gets interrupted though when Jack gets kidnapped by some Yeti’s and taken to the North Pole. It turns out North has had an encounter with pitch Black, a villain they thought defeated long ago and he has gathered the guardians to take him down. What’s more the Man in the Moon has signaled to North that Jack is to join the Guardians.
Jack wants nothing to do with them, he’s used to being alone and doing his own thing rather than co-operating or following rules but North is adamant that he was chosen for a reason and what’s more his reason for existing must be something to do with helping children or the Man in the Moon wouldn’t have created him in the first place. Jack decides to tag long with the team’s first mission, to save the Tooth Fairy’s castle from Pitch, more to ride North’s sleigh than anything else but when he gets there Tooth informs him that he used to be a person before becoming Jack Frost and that his baby teeth will restore his memories of his human life if they can get them back from Pitch.
Wanting to find out about his past Jack joins in the next mission which turns out to be a trap as Pitch turns the Sandman himself into black nightmare sand Pitch can control. There will only be nightmares in the world now until Pitch is defeated. In the process though they learn that Jack’s power is particularly effective against Pitch and if he helps them they might be able to bring him down and rescue The Sandman.
The remaining Guardians hatch a plan to safeguard Easter using Jack’s frost powers to defeat pitch if he attacks but Pitch leads Jack away with the promise of giving him his teeth. Jack accepts and gets his memories back but in the time he is gone Pitch attacks the others and this year there will be no more Easter.
Broken and defeated can The Guardians bring Pitch down once and for all or will children all over the world no longer believe in anything but fear and the darkness?
It’s a kids movie, what do you think?
I really can’t criticise the story at all. It’s a perfectly serviceable 3 act structure, the main character has an arc and grows and changes, the side characters also have arcs that relate to the main character and finally the villain’s plan makes perfect sense and his motivations are logical and compelling. You can probably guess how the story will go after watching it for 15 minutes but its a kids film and that won’t be a problem for them.
But I think the story lacks something to elevate it above simply fine. It isn’t particularly visually impressive for example. The animation is fine and I love the way different characters move** but there isn’t anything to gawp at like you’d get in a Ghibli or a Disney film. It’s not that funny. It’s not unfunny but it’s not trying for belly laughs and the joke rate is low, about 1 chuckle every 5 or 10 minutes. It isn’t particularly scary, Pitch is an effective villain but it doesn’t have the nightmare fuel of something like Toy Story or Coraline. It’s characters are well drawn but it doesn’t have the heartfelt emotions of something like How to Train your Dragon. It’s action sequences are okay but they’re short and not terribly inventive. It just feels like a film that is okay at everything but not particularly great at any one thing.***
As kids films go you could do a lot worse. This is a perfectly okay film in every respect with the added fun of some really creative and clever reinventions. If the concept of Fairytale Avengers sounds like it would appeal to you you’ll probably enjoy Rise of the Guardians but I don’t think anybody could love it.
*I think it’s a sort of microcosm of how genre works. Genre works by combining familiar elements in new and novel ways. Audiences want their expectations to be met when they seek out fiction but they don’t want something entirely familiar. Genre helps with this contradiction because you know when you watch, say, a sci-fi film, that you’ll get futuristic technology, aliens, lasers, monsters, etc but you don’t know how the story will end, what the villain is or their motivations, etc.
Reinventing a character works in a similar way. We take all the familiar elements but recombine them in a manner that is pleasingly novel.
**so that Jack is always light on his feet and moving like a dancer but Bunny moves like a Bunny and Pitch seems to slide and glide everywhere.
*** I do want to praise the voice acting actually. Jude Law is not an actor I have much time for but his Pitch is great. He resists the urge to full on camp like most actors would do when playing the literal embodiment of fear and instead is really restrained. He’s effectively creepy but when he offers Jack Frost the opportunity to team up you actually believe that he could consider Jack a friend. Law has created a rare villain here who seems equal parts terrifying and utterly human. Chris Pine puts in an unexpectedly good performance as Jack too. He’s not a voice actor but he delivers a performance that easily matches an experienced one here providing a voice that is not at all like his own. Alex Baldwin as Russian Santa so deeply disappears into his character that you’d have no idea it was Alex Baldwin at all. In fact almost all the voice acting is good with the exception of some of the kids.