28 November 2012


Whatever else you might want to say about DreamWorks Animation's Rise of the Guardians, it sure has a mother of a high concept: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and other mythological figures from Euro-American childhood are a Justice League-esque team of heroes. Maybe even too high of a concept, in fact, given how the film (adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from the first book in a series by William Joyce) ends up having no real idea of what to do with its team besides assemble them and bask in getting to have the cachet of a pop-culture crossover with the classiness of traditional folklore. Certainly, the paint-by-numbers conflict and the even more stock-issue hero's journey (young man without a past learns who he is and who he can be, as brought to you by the glut of boy-centric animated movies over the past 15 years, and every JRPG ever made) do not live up to the creative potential of a universe where the Easter Bunny is a curmudgeonly Australian voiced by Hugh Jackman, Santa (called "North" here, I assume for maximum cross-cultural marketing, because all of us in the audience are reprehensibly stupid) is an ebullient, sword-wielding Russian voiced by Alec Baldwin, and the Sandman is Harpo Marx as Green Lantern, and all three of them fight supervillains together.

In fact, creativity is not the problem here: if anything, the film suffers from creativity fatigue, as the need to create coherent, consistent worlds for each of the main heroes (also included: the Tooth Fairy, played by Isla Fisher), while also creating unique but complementary designs for all of the magical characters results in such a wide-ranging menagerie of colors and shapes that after a while the cease to feel special at all, and one attends more to their excess than their imagination, and everything seems to be a bit desperately overdone if not downright gaudy (though genuine gaudiness only shows up in the Tooth Fairy's floating gilded palace). In short, Rise of the Guardians is over-designed, hoping to make up with in the business of its world and its characters what it lacks elsewhere.

To be fair, this approach doesn't necessarily fail, though on a purely personal level, I found there to be a bit of an unpleasant darkness to the overall design mentality; undoubtedly, turning figures out of bedtime stories into epic action heroes requires a certain grim panache, and the seriousness and severity of the character design matches well with the self-conscious grandeur of the story. But none of it is any fun. Still, that brings us securely to matters of taste, so let's back out of it: because objectively, again, this isn't "failure". In fact, the design of Rise of the Guardians and the narrative conceit tie into each other relatively well, particularly given an overall muted but richly saturated color scheme (even the brightest colors are less "poppy" than they might be) that subtly but distinctly suggests an old oil painting in its texture and detail and sense of age; and since the movie itself has such a constant awareness of old folk traditions and the characters themselves are so aware of the passage of centuries within their own lives, the feeling of oldness that seeps through the images is very welcome.

(Notice, though, that this is all in reference to the film's design; the animation itself is actually somewhat horrid, with every single human character, but North in particular, moving with blocky inelegance, constrained no doubt by their awful plasticine skin, and shifting their facial expressions as if it takes a great deal of considering what emotions look like before they are able to do so. But human animation has always been DreamWorks's great stumbling block from the time of the Shreks: only in How to Train Your Dragon and maybe Madagascar 3 have the studio's human beings erred on the side of being pleasant to watch).

At any rate, then, Rise of the Guardians is a real looker, totally unlike anything else that DreamWorks has ever done, and just sufficiently different enough from most of what's going on in American animated features right now to seem more revelatory than it actually is, with its heightened sensitivity towards texture and effects animation and all. And this is good, because it gives us something to hold onto in the face of a story that pretty much paints itself by numbers from the very first scene, in which Jack Frost (Chris Pine) floats into existence through a frozen lake, explaining in narration that he has no past and longs more than anything else to find his place in the world. He thinks this means finding out where he came from, but it turns out to also mean fighting to save the innocence of childhood alongside the famous Guardians (a theme harped on with discomfiting insistence for a company so devoted to irony for so much of its existence), banded together to resist the return of their greatest foe, Pitch Black (Jude Law), a boogeyman bent on making all the children of Earth live in constant fear. Would you believe that events transpire such that Jack, and only Jack, is able to stop Pitch? I cannot imagine why you wouldn't. Also, this all takes place in the days immediately before and after Easter, not Christmas, which took my by surprise, though I guess nothing but its release date suggests otherwise.

The musty story is at least somewhat compensated for by the iconic figures involved (though for the same reason, the film is bogged down by a contrived internal mythology that feels a little too obvious in its intentions to leave the world open for an indefinite run of sequels). And about those figures: they succeed in the minimal goal of being, on the whole, interesting enough to spend time with, though only the pantomime antics of Sandman are a real highlight, and the movie itself patently finds North and the Bunny more interesting than the rest of the cast combined; Jack himself seems like an afterthought, given the blandest character design (an immortal embodiment of winter wearing a hoodie?), and Pitch is a uselessly bland villain, whose nightmare horses are far more interesting as villains than he is himself. And surprise, surprise, this is a DreamWorks film and the stunt casting doesn't play at all: Alec Baldwin's Russian accent sounds pretty much exactly like Alec Baldwin doing a Russian accent, and it's distracting enough to be a tremendous liability; nobody else reaches down to that level of badness, though certainly nobody does anything particularly memorable (Pine mutters his way through, Jackman is just cashing a check, Fisher alone tries to find any kind of energy or personality, but it comes off as grating, especially married to her character's hectic design). The film relies far more on the mere fact of "Santa Claus with swords" or "Easter Bunny with boomerangs and a bad attitude" than it does in giving anybody a distinctive, meaningful personality, and the whole film ends up feeling like a gimmick; a handsome, complex gimmick, but still just one more in the line of DreamWorks's impersonal pop culture melanges, thankfully deprived of any obnoxious jokey references outside of the lazy theft of the minions from Despicable Me. To use the movie's own parlance, it has no center; it's a gorgeous but brittle shell, largely fun to watch and hard to remember afterwards.



Andy said...

And surprise, surprise, this is a DreamWorks film and the stunt casting doesn't play at all

This fact depresses me more than it should :(


Tim said...

My hope is that the very cool box office reception the film has thus far received will change some thinking in terms of how these movies are made and marketed, but this hope is obvious grounded in nothing more than my desire to believe the best about humanity.

franklinshepard said...

Well, I liked it a little more than you did, but I felt there were a number of interesting elements that were sort of brought up and then never really explored in any meaningful way - the similarities between the kids having faith in the guardians and Jack having faith in the moon, for instance, or the parallels that Lindsay-Abaire was trying to draw between Jack and Pitch.

I did appreciate that there were no ridiculous pop culture gags or fart jokes.

The funniest thing about this movie being set at Easter is that it led to the immortal scene where some kids can't find any eggs at an Easter egg hunt, and one of them says, "Well, I guess Easter is cancelled this year," as if kids desperately look forward to finding colored hard-boiled eggs every year.

Daniel Silberberg said...

"though I guess nothing but its release date suggests otherwise."

Well, also the frost-themed protagonist. What's he gonna do during Easter, make the remaining slush melt more slowly?

Also, why is the Easter Bunny Australian? Haven't bunnies kind of ravaged the continent's natural ecosystem?

KayMartha12 said...

Ah, Tim, I was thoroughly enchanted by this film, but to each his own.

But I must question what you mean when you say you hope the film's "cool box office reception" will change thinking on how [animated? children's?] movies are made. First off, there's a debate in the animation industry right now over whether RoTG is really "underperforminng," or if studio experts are writing it off too early because it is animated. After all, trailing right after Twilight, James Bond, and a new Spielberg film is not bad by live-action standards. The film is also doing well with its target audience.

That notwithstanding, I think it would be a shame that out of all the Dreamworks animated releases, this would be deemed the "bad investment" because it is one of the better Dreamworks films. No pop cultural references, songs with royalty fees, or scatalogical humor. But what I was most impressed by is the balanced screen-time and development of all the Guardians. In Kung Fu Panda 2, the action revolves around Po and Tigress without much regard to any of other "Fab Five," and of the many reasons why I hated Madagascar 3 was that Ben Stiller (the Lion) and Chris Rock (the zebra? I dont' even remember) said everything, while everyone else was a waste. In RoTG, Jack may be a central character, but his relationships with the other Guardians and even with Pitch are important to the story. I didn't find Tooth grating, and in fact, I like how she was the one who disarmed Jack and ultimately was essential to Jack's "rise" to guardianhood. A note on her design: I like how she never upstaged any character; she was either a bright focal point of a scene, or a fluttering detail of enchantment.

As you brought up that the "Gaurdians" title might be a problem, I certainly hope studios don't assume that successful films must have a one word title, or an ambiguous adjective for that matter. The words "Tangled" and "Brave" were not what drew me to those films, and the upcoming "Epic" film from Blue Sky sounds just laughable.

I hope Rise of the Guardians profits. I am a believer!

Trish said...

"...young man without a past learns who he is and who he can be, as brought to you by the glut of boy-centric animated movies over the past 15 years, and every JRPG ever made."

And here we have yet another quote (emphasis mine) which is itself another reason why I love your blog.

Trish said...

Addendum: And now that I have finally seen the film I can confirm that quote haunted me throughout.

I really wanted to like "Guardians". The poignant story of how and why this film came to be haunted me throughout the proceedings as well and made me sad that the planned franchise died on arrival. There were moments that were at least pretty to look at, and I love some of the design choices (my God, the hummingbird-fairies!)

But ultimately, the whole thing felt weirdly morose -and mind you, this is coming from someone who likes "dark" animated films- and, honestly, boring and unimaginative.