'Rise of the Guardians': Holiday fun
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"It was dark, and it was cold, and I was scared." So the voice of a man-child tells the viewer at the opening of the 3-D computer-animated movie "Rise of the Guardians." This eternally youthful guy who slides barefoot across ice patches in the dead of night and can freeze with the touch of his long walking stick is, it seems, an enigma unto himself. "Why I was there and what I was meant to do, that I didn't know." A pretty heavy dilemma for a movie whose main stars are the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. "Rise of the Guardians" takes a risk that many creative artists might shrink away from, were it to occur to them at all: to take childhood myths kind of seriously on the one hand, imbuing them with humanity and purpose, and, on the other hand, to create something like a superhero team out of said characters.
"Rise of the Guardians" succeeds on both those terms and emerges as a relatively triumphant and wholesome children's entertainment. This is, of course, a testimony to the talent of William Joyce, the veteran children's literature maestro whose book inspired the picture, and also a creative team overseen by, among others, the exceptionally talented Guillermo Del Toro, who as both a director and producer has been determined to prove that comic-and-story-book derived movies are not obliged to be complete crap. He is one of several executive producers here, but a distinct Del Toro "touch" is evident in the movie's art direction, which combines up-to-the-minute technology with a near-tactile appreciation for the fanciful art nouveau stylings of Winsor McCay and Maxfield Parrish. This is a severely beautiful-looking movie, for sure.
The character undergoing the existential crisis in the beginning of the picture is Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine), a not-quite-believed-in children's myth who's enlisted into the Santa Claus-led group of children's guardians at the behest of the man in the moon. Yes, the details of the plot's buttresses are kind of convoluted and silly, but they boil down to this: Santa and cronies protect the children of the world, who in turn keep the "Guardians" alive by believing in them.
It all boils down to preserving a sense of wonder, in case you were wondering. And in case you were wondering about contemporary appeal, these are not your father's Guardians: Santa (voiced by Alec Baldwin) has the words "Naughty" and "Nice" tattooed on his forearms; the Easter Bunny is very tall and a little hostile, like Wolverine with a cottontail, and is aptly enough voiced by Hugh Jackman; the Tooth Fairy (voiced by Isla Fisher) has a bit of Kylie Minogue's Green Fairy from "Moulin Rouge" in her; the Sandman doesn't speak, but is adorable in a silent-movie comedian way. And together they must fight a bogeyman named Pitch, an ingeniously fluid creation voiced by Jude Law, who is of course a bringer of nightmares. His scheme is to wipe out kid's beliefs in the Guardians and fill their lives with fear.
The ensuing action gets a little hectic but never escalates to the harrowing level of vintage traumatic Disney (e.g. the Pleasure Island scene in "Pinocchio," the unpleasantness about Bambi's mom) even when real-world kids get involved. This is all well and proper, as to do otherwise would (among other things) overestimate just how seriously even children ought to be able to take the "Guardians" conceit. Mostly, the movie keeps things on the near side of fun, and pushes a not-entirely-insipid life perspective. The ratio of staggering craft to innocuous content brings this to a level of better-than-average contemporary children's fare. Of course you have to remember that the last movie I saw that featured the Easter Bunny was the atrocious "Hop," so I might be unconsciously committing some relative overrating here.