"Rise of the Guardians," the new DreamWorks Animation feature conceived by famed children's book author William Joyce, features, at its core, such an ingenious concept that it's hard to believe nobody's ever thought of it before. The plot concerns a kind of 'Avengers'-style super-team made up of beloved childhood characters – Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the Sandman (he doesn't speak but communicates through ghostly dreams), and the newest, most reluctant member of the team, Jack Frost (Chris Pine), who must band together to stop the spooky boogeyman Pitch (Jude Law) from annihilating childhood innocence in a more profoundly evil way than the Internet already has.
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?"
Jack Frost's identity crisis makes up the heart of the film, especially when he's called upon by the rest of the Guardians, led by Baldwin's gruff, no-nonsense Santa Claus, who speaks with some kind of Eastern European accent and is covered, head-to-toe, in the kind of Russian prison tattoos favored by Viggo Mortensen from "Eastern Promises." (You half expect him to jab his forefinger and middle-finger into his neck and point at Frost.) The Guardians' headquarters are located in the North Pole, surrounded by Claus' statuesque yeti guards and tons of tiny elves (in this story, the yetis do all the work and the elves just look cute). The other Guardians, particularly Jackman's Easter Bunny, aren’t sold on the idea of Frost joining the team, but it's been deemed appropriate by the Man in the Moon, and what the Man says, goes.
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.
Sometimes the gears of the storytelling machine squeak too loudly, and you can get the sense that Pulitzer-winning writer David Lindsay-Abaire, director Peter Ramsey, and executive producers Joyce and Guillermo del Toro (who, it should be reminded, is a kind of creative czar at DreamWorks Animation), had a series of narrative and thematic bullet points they had to hit and, by god, if they had to slow down the story to accomplish those bullet points, they were going to do it. Part of the creakiness of the middle section of the movie has to do with how much more vibrantly imagined the fantasy worlds are than the mundane human town. Throughout the course of the movie we get to see where the hummingbird-like tooth fairies live, suspended in giant golden birdcages; Pitch's hideout, which is literally where dreams go to die; and the Easter Island-like tropical lair of the Easter Bunny… followed up by what could be any anonymous midsized postwar town in suburban Michigan.
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.