By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood March 17, 2012 at 8:30AM
Well, if the surprising box office success of "The Lorax" ($132.1 million in two weeks) signaled the beginning of the Oscar race for animated feature, then DreamWorks struck back with a sneak peek on Wednesday of its likely contender, "Rise of the Guardians."
It's the answer to superhero fatigue: an "Avengers" for fairy tales in which Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Sandman, and Jack Frost join forces to combat the Boogeyman (aka Pitch) -- the evil purveyor of fear. Opening Nov. 21 and adapted from a new book series from Oscar-winner William Joyce ("The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore"), "Guardians" looks fabulous, judging from the brief footage that turns the superhero genre on its head with the author's renowned retro vibe and vibrant, comic-book-inspired design. It's an enticingly fantastical world and primal story that's different enough to capture the broad demographic appeal that failed to ignite last year's "Arthur Christmas." But as Joyce suggests, it reaches all the way back to the Jewish "Golem" folktale.
"Guardians" also represents a prestigious leap forward for DreamWorks in building on the "How to Train Your Dragon" momentum of two years ago. "Guardians" is all about protecting childhood innocence against the dark forces of cynicism. What if all these fairy tale figures knew each other and were empowered by the Man in the Moon (the Nick Fury of their world) to be the guardians of childhood? That's the ingenious premise, with a blustery, Russian Santa as the leader (his tattooed arms read "Naughty" and "Nice" right out of "Night of the Hunter"). He's voiced by Alec Baldwin, of all people.
In fact, most of the voice actors are cast against type with "Star Trek's" Chris Pine playing protagonist Jack Frost, the unwitting recruit with no sense of identity or community; Hugh Jackman as the Bunny with a chip on his shoulder (he's Sundance to Santa's Butch Cassidy); Isla Fisher as the beautiful Tinker Bell-like Tooth, who shields the memories implanted in every tooth; and Jude Law as Pitch, who's reminiscent of "Spider-Man's" Venom. Interestingly, Sandy doesn't speak but conjures images with golden sand particles. As director Peter Ramsey remarked, he looks like a cross between Yoda and Harpo Marx.
I spoke with the first-time feature director, a story artist who's worked with David Fincher ("Panic Room"), Francis Ford Coppola, and Spike Jonze, who also previously helmed DreamWorks' "Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins From Outer Space" TV special. He found the primal appeal of the story too irresistible to pass up and likes the idea of harnessing the charisma of Baldwin as Santa and Law as Pitch. "Alex is so explosive and makes you think that Santa is the most brazenly optimistic guy in the world, and who better than Jude to seductively convince you of your worst fears deep inside you?" Ramsey offered.
DreamWorks has upped its look with a slew of new particle effects and skin surfacing and subsurface scattering to make its human characters look more believable yet still very much stylized to steer clear of the Uncanny Valley.
Meanwhile, DreamWorks also unveiled some footage from "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" (June 8). Monte Carlo hasn't looked this good since Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief." Indeed, the zany antics of Alex (Ben Stiller), Marty (Chris Rock), Melman (David Schwimmer), and Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) are much more surreal set against such dazzling eye candy. And the arrogant, unflappable French baddie cop looks like Lucille Ball (voiced supremely by Frances McDormand). The fact that Noah Baumbach ("The Fantastic Mr. Fox") wrote the script adds off-beat flair. If only there was more of Sacha Baron Cohen's clueless King Julien lemur.
Oh, well. Can't wait to see how "Guardians" turns out this holiday season and how the Oscar race plays out. There's plenty of promise from Pixar's "Brave" (June 22), "Disney's "Frankenweenie" (Oct. 5) and "Wreck-It Ralph" (Nov. 2), Laika/Focus Feature's "ParaNorman" (Aug. 17), Aardman's "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" (April 27), and Sony's "Hotel Transylvania" (Sept. 21).