Rise of the Guardians – not to be confused with the strigine Legend of the Guardians – had an awkward marketing campaign that I have to say had an adverse effect on me. Someone, somewhere, decided it was a good idea to preface most of the season’s animated films with an extended preview for this feature, prefaced by an extremely awkward introduction by Hugh Jackman, looking uncomfortable as he talked about his role as the Easter Bunny for an audience of kids who couldn’t be expected to understand the irony. This gave way to an overlong sequence taken from the film’s first act, which despite good humour, lovely visuals and a very strong premise had little going for it in terms of originality.
But that premise, those interesting characters, the cute design of Jack Frost and the promise of spectacular action held quite some appeal, plus I heard crew from the brilliant How to Train Your Dragon were involved, so I was keen to go see it.
Arguably a follow-up to that previous Dreamworks film and bringing with it the same treatment of a comedic premise with a serious, epic sort of a narrative and a protagonist a couple of years into adolescence rather than a little child. In short, going for the young adult crowd rather than the littluns or the knowing adults who like Shrek.
The idea of an ass-whupping, fighting Santa Claus is hardly original – it’s where South Park began, after all – but the hook here is that the happy optimism of the children around the world is maintained by four guardians. Santa has his spring counterpart in The Easter Bunny, while the Tooth Fairy takes care of not only milk teeth but the happy memories of childhood. Then there is The Sandman, whose happy dreams are key to contented nights worldwide. But the Boogieman, the sinister Pitch Black, has made a move to tip the balance towards fear, and the guardians are no enough to stop him, so the God-like Man in the Moon appoints a new guardian, the fun-loving but deeply lonely Jack Frost, who remembers nothing of the time back when he was human, before he was chosen.
The designs of the small but iconic cast are great, as are the performances that give them life. Santa is portrayed as a patriarchal but merry Russian in a performance Alec Baldwin clearly enjoyed very much. Jack Frost, who after seeing Star Trek I never would have expected Chris Pine to voice with such vulnerability – only for him to be perfect – has an inspired design, simple and yet complex, with skinny jeans and a hoodie to put him bang up-to-date with the modern crowd and a strangely compelling face that isn’t what you would call handsome or pretty or idealised yet makes him very cute and expressive. Jackman going against type makes for some of the bigger laughs in the show, especially when he goes through a transformation towards the end of the film, and the mute Sandman is a classic cartoon character. There’s a touch of tokenism about the Tooth Fairy as the only female guardian, so that she’s soon awkwardly flirting and her little fairies become a mass of damsels in distress, and Isla Fisher phones in the same likeable but forgettable performance from Rango, but it works and she’s got a pretty scaled design. Then there’s Jude Law as the Boogieman, something that sounds slightly odd in a British accent (where the term is ‘bogeyman’). He’s simplistic and slightly too often made a buffoon, but when he’s manipulating or in command, he’s quite brilliant – and I suspect many a teen girl will be producing fanart and fanfic of him with Jack. There’s a touch of Scar about his mixture of malevolence, gloating and cowardice, though he’s not quite on that level of charisma. There are also a gang of credulous little kids who are written with the tough roles of being fickle enough to believe and stop believing in the guardians over the course of just an hour or two, but especially with the addition of the expectation-inverting Cupcake, a memorable, briefly-sketched little gang.
The plot is simple but neatly-done. Jack is only given his motivation – finding his memories – because he is brought into contact with the guardians, which is neat, and also sets him up for his downfall and guilt later on. Pitch’s downfall comes because he throws balance out, and one neat thing about having a story about Jack Frost and Santa in a story based around Easter time is that it will be appropriate for airing on TV networks at multiple times during the year.
It won’t go down as one of the great classics of animation, of that I’m sure – there’s too much of an emotional barrier between supernatural beings and the audience. It needed to be heartfelt through some great emotional moment, and never quite gets there – it’s more a superhero film without having the coolness to appeal to adult superhero fans. But just because it’s not destined to be a classic, doesn’t mean it wasn’t excellently-done – it was, and now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get a Rise of the Guardians Happy Meal. Did I mention that the marketing wasn’t exactly subtle?