The studio has an only partially-deserved reputation for copycatting its competition and a definitely-deserved reputation for prizing quantity over quality: so far, it’s released 25 animated movies, almost twice the number of Pixar films. That tends to result in a lot of mediocre movies and tired sequels, content to coast on cookie-cutter children’s animation formula. But every so often, DreamWorks tries something new, making an effort to exceed mediocrity, and that’s why I keep watching their offerings (eventually).
The trailers for Rise of the Guardians weren’t promising: They made it look like a film designed by committee, as if the studio had both wanted to jump on the superhero team-up bandwagon as well as profit from the name recognition and Christmas spirit-inducing presence of Santa Claus. The actual film doesn’t dispell that notion: It’s set in a fantasy world where several anthropomorphic representations of holidays and other childhood milestones actually exist and are relied upon by the world’s children to provide them with e.g. good dreams (the Sandman), money for milk teeth (the Tooth Fairy) and Christmas presents (Mr North, aka Santa). There is a token attempt to internationalise the mythological beings (Mr North has a vaguely Russian accent and the Easter Bunny is Australian), but it doesn’t change the fact that these characters are all Western (and, in their interpretation, specifically American, just like the kids in the film).
And yet I have to admit that the superhero angle works reasonably well and doesn’t entirely feel forced on the characters. They all have more than just their core duty, representing concepts like hope, wonder and childhood memories, and when these aspects are threatened, they defend children from harm by doling them out. It’s not particularly cohesive (North’s and the Easter Bunny’s powers remain rather abstract, and the “battle scenes” make precious little use of the characters’ individual uniqueness), but at least it’s an attempt to connect these very different entities from folklore.
It also helps that none of them are the main characters. That responsibility falls on Jack Frost, a personification of the fun side of winter – and fun in general -, who starts the film as an outsider in more ways than one: He is not part of the child-protecting superhero team, the Guardians, nor does he really want to be. He longs for an explanation where he comes from and who gave him his powers. And he is basically invisible, thanks to the fact that almost no one in the modern world believes in him, exacerbating his loneliness.
Another outsider is the film’s antagonist, Pitch, aka the Bogeyman, the avatar of fear and bad dreams, who was severely weakened in previous battles with the Guardians as well as enlightenment and modern technology, which have caused children to stop fearing and believing in his presence. Belief is a tangible thing in this fantasy universe where the Easter Bunny can cause it to be spring all over the world at the same time. Faith is the source of these beings’ powers, and if children lose it (which can happen awfully fast and is part of Pitch’s evil plan), the Guardians become weak and ineffectual. It’s less of a pro-religion stance than it is advocacy for children to keep a sense of whimsy and wonder in spite of modernity’s push for rationality, I think.
The movie’s appeal lies not in its perfunctory action, but in its heart. Jack’s journey from mischievous spirit to responsible Guardian is genuinely and surprisingly affecting. Perhaps it’s the very nice score by Alexandre Desplat, or the effective juxtaposition of Jack and Pitch, who are, after all, not that dissimilar. Pitch, in particular, may be evil and insane, but he’s that way for more than just a token reason, and I appreciated that. His motivation is so reasonable I half-expected him to be redeemed in the end. He’s also voiced by Jude Law as part of the best performance in the movie. This grounded character work as well as better environmental design and animation, plus fewer annoying pop culture moments, elevate the movie above stuff like Megamind, even if it can’t reach the level of How to Train Your Dragon.
Guardians is considered bit of a flop: It made back barely twice its budget globally, and if not for last year’s Turbo, it would be DreamWorks’ lowest-grossing recent release. The one time I think a DWA film would warrant a sequel that could expand and improve on the premise…