The movie starts with the introduction of Pine's Frost, in some undisclosed medieval village, where a glittery moon hangs lit in a gorgeously rendered 3D sky. Jack is first seen underwater, trapped underneath the glassy surface of a frozen pond, but then he's called by the Man in the Moon (this is about as spiritual as the movie gets) to the surface, where he's reborn as a spritely imp, able to control snow, frost and ice. The story then flashes forward to today, where we watch Jack slip and slide around a modern American town, causing all kinds of snowy mischief (he makes some remark about it being an unscheduled snow day). Jack makes a connection with a young boy named Jamie (Dakota Goyo), but is heartbroken when, after Jamie's Mom suggests that the freak snowstorm was the work of Jack Frost, Jamie asks, "Who?"
The design work in "Rise of the Guardians" is jaw-dropping; everything shimmers and shines with a kind of glittery brightness. It was designed with Joyce's uncanny eye, from a series of books called "Guardians of Childhood," and you can see the typically Joycian design elements – the retro-futurism of the North Pole, the sharply angular Easter Bunny, the strong, swooping lines of Santa's sleigh. When Jack walks through the North Pole's factory, with planes zipping through the air, elves scuttling underfoot, and yetis walking through the foreground and background, you can't help but be swept up in the woozy holiday spirit, no matter when you watch it. Particularly fascinating is the way that the Sandman conjures images and dreams – they're kind of grainy swirls of pure imagination, and when Pitch starts to turn things towards darkness, the dreams also turn into black sand. Particle physics are always something that can make or break the illusionary world of an animated world, and on that front, "Rise of the Guardians" triumphs.
Thankfully, the magic returns during the final showdown, which takes place in the same suburban town. Jack Frost reclaims his mythological identity and the heroes face off against Pitch in an effort to return wonder to human children. And the results really are wondrous. There are a number of jaw-dropping moments where the visual wizardry is enough to trump any narrative stumbling blocks that the movie might have previously faced. And Lindsay-Abaire, for his part, tries to insert just enough pathos to make Jack's journey emotionally and intellectually compelling. Pine perfectly balances the hubris and heart that made his Captain Kirk so affecting (and, to a lesser degree, his hothead conductor in Tony Scott's underrated "Unstoppable"). Jack Frost isn't the flashiest character (or performance) in the movie, but it's a hoot nonetheless. There's also a meta-textual quality to Pine's performance, too, given that true immortality, in cinema, is only accomplished by providing the voice to an animated character. In two hundred years, some parent will need to calm their kids down for an hour and a half, and they'll throw on "Rise of the Guardians." Now that's mythological. [B]
This is a reprint of our review from the AFI Film Festival.