Taking inspiration from William Joyce’s Guardians of Childhood book series, Rise of the Guardians delivers an unusual reinterpretation of the fantastical icons of childhood legend for an imperfect but enjoyable adventure. The conceit of Guardians is that not only do these figures of myth all exist, they know each other and some of them are in an alliance to defend the happiness of children everywhere at the behest of their unseen, possibly-spiritual guide, the Man on the Moon. The titular Guardians include the small but elite group of Nicholas St. North, (Santa Claus), E. Aster Bunnymund (the Easter Bunny), Tooth the Tooth Fairy, and Sandy the Sandman. Each guardian draws his or her power from the belief of children, and is an avatar for some specific aspect: Santa is the guardian of wonder, the Easter Bunny represents the hope that comes with spring, Sandy is the custodian of all good dreams, Tooth exchanges gifts for children’s teeth because they contain precious memories.
These four are summoned to the North Pole by Santa to receive the news of the return of Pitch Black, a.k.a the boogeyman, a bonafide force of nature as an avatar of darkness and fear. After spending centuries of not being believed in, the embittered Pitch seeks to change his situation and get revenge for past defeats by undermining the guardians’ work and destroying faith in them. To foil him, the Man on the Moon makes a seemingly strange choice for a new guardian: the youthful Jack Frost, a known whimsical troublemaker. Despite Bunnymund’s skepticism and Jack’s reluctance to take on any responsibility, he still tags along to battle Pitch just to get a ride in Santa’s tricked-out sleigh. But soon enough Jack’s stake in the adventure gets personal, and he turns out to be key to opposing Pitch and his malicious machinations.
Guardians is one of the most dazzling movies Dreamworks Animation has produced. The animation is lush, the characters detailed and expressive, the guardians’ homes fantastical as though these locales were ripped straight from an exceptional storybook. It’s fortunate such clear care and effort went into the art, as this helps lend credence to settings and ideas that easily could have just come off as arbitrarily and detrimentally goofy in lesser hands. Seriously, the Easter Bunny sounding Australian and chucking boomerangs? Santa Claus taking after a Russian Cossack warrior, living in a castle where yeti-like creatures are the ones who really make the toys instead of Santa’s incompetent elves?
But in the end it’s not such gimmicks that define the guardians, but the aspects they represent and the contagious pleasure they show when making kids happy. The one who makes the movie tick, however, is Jack, who struggles with amnesia about his life before becoming Jack Frost and frustration with the fact that he’s not believed in and thus invisible to the children he spends his time among. As a fellow who gets his kicks motivating kids to have fun, Jack and the adventure give the guardians a needed reminder about the joy of spending time among the children they love, as opposed to being too wrapped up in their admittedly praiseworthy duties. Jack is also an essential foil to Pitch, as his ice magic turns out to be effective against him, and both characters want to be believed in by the world’s children. In fact as Pitch tries time and again to make Jack appreciate what they have in common and turn him to his side, one is almost tempted to empathize with our villain. But ultimately Pitch is motivated by his desire to sow fear, while Jack simply yearns to know who he is and to be acknowledged.
Extras on the Blu-ray disc and DVD for Rise of the Guardians are what you’d expect and hope to have for a thorough behind-the-scenes look at the movie. There’s an audio commentary with director Peter Ramsey and producers Christina Steinberg and Nancy Bernstein, where the trio talk through the moments that stand out for them, mention ideas behind certain scenes and give shout-outs to a member of the creative team from time to time. “Dreamers and Believers” highlights the celebrity voice talent in the movie as Alec Baldwin (North), Hugh Jackman (Bunnymund), Isla Fisher (Tooth) and Jude Law (Pitch) comment on how they see their characters, and we’re treated to footage of them recording their lines. “The Man Behind the Curtains” centers on Guardians of Childhood author and executive producer William Joyce and his endeavor to flesh out a mythology for these mythical characters and keep the memory of them alive for current and future generations. “Behind the Magic” is a comprehensive look that touches on the conceptual inspiration for the settings and characters as well as the effort put into the special effects in music. Many staff are on deck to discuss these things: William Joyce, Peter Ramsey, Christina Steinberg, Nancy Bernstein, Production Designer Patrick Marc Hanenberger, Head of Character Animation Gabe Hordos, Head of Story Hamish Grieve, Head of Effects Yancy Lindquist, Visual Effects Supervisor David Prescott, and musical composer Alexandre Desplat.
The pitch quote on the back of the packaging for Rise of the Guardians is “The perfect family movie”. This always sounds good and I have no doubt it’s a proven marketing catchphrase, but in reality this is thoroughly a children’s movie, and its supporters should embrace that and own it. Happily this happens to be in the same class as Disney’s Winnie the Pooh, standing as a celebration of and tribute to the joys and fantasies of childhood.