Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: "Rise of the Guardians"

This has been a down year for animated films, but “Rise of the Guardians” arrives for the holidays just in time to stoke enthusiasm for family-friendly movies.

This visually dazzling and emotionally affecting tale sounds gimmicky at first, what with giving Santa Claus and other holiday icons the super-hero treatment, banding them together into a supergroup set to battle evil a la “The Avengers.”

Santa certainly looks the part, morphed into a sword-wielding brute with a buff physique that’s more WWE than bowlful of jelly. He even has corresponding “Naughty” and “Nice” ‘tats on his burly arms, plus a fearsome, Slavic-tinged growl (courtesy of Alec Baldwin).

The Easter Bunny (voiced by Hugh Jackman) is even more pumped up, turned into an Australian-accented 6-foot badass rabbit with moves like Bruce Lee and an arsenal of boomerangs and other weapons on his bandolier.

And have you checked out Jack Frost? As voiced by Chris Pine, Jack is depicted as an impish teenage skater-boy rapscallion, using his magic staff to spread sudden blasts of cold air and mischief wherever he goes. With a flyaway platinum hairdo, bare feet (brrr!) and contemptuous smirk, he resembles every parent’s worst apprehensions for underachieving offspring.

Directed by first-timer Peter Ramsey based on the books by William Joyce, “Guardians” would at first appear to be nothing more than an action-packed thrill ride for slightly older kiddies – the sort who prefer Wii games to “Sesame Street.” But screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”) adds subtle layers of heftier thematic elements that lift the material to a higher plane.

The result is a terrific blend of PG-rated battles and soulful character dynamics.

The story begins with Jack Frost’s birth as a creature of magic, and subsequent induction into the Guardians – powerful beings who protect the children of the world. In addition to Santa and the Easter Bunny, the other members are the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), who resembles a multi-hued hummingbird, and the Sandman, a mute little fellow whose golden sands send out happy dreams.

The Guardians derive their powers from the belief wee ones invest in them. Alas, that makes them susceptible to dastardly types like Pitch Black, aka the Bogeyman, who specializes in sowing cynicism and turning dreams into nightmares. He launches his attack on the outposts of the Guardians one by one, turning Easter into a dud and leaving all those teeth waiting under pillows unexchanged.

The filmmakers make a bold choice by making Pitch, voiced in a devilish purr by Jude Law, as alternately soothing and threatening. He’s even somewhat sympathetic, since his big beef is that he’s perpetually forced to hide in the shadows where no one believes in him, or even acknowledges his existence.

This is the same challenge facing Jack Frost. He moves unseen amidst the human world, gifting children with closed schools and snowball fights, but never receiving acknowledgement for his efforts. It’s a simple yet powerful metaphor easily grasped by child and adult alike – finding your place in the world so you won’t be ignored.

The computer-generated animation is a dizzy delight, filled with lots of kinetic energy and audacious camera moves. I adored how Santa’s elves resemble little pointed hats with bells, and serve more as amusing mascots while yetis do all the real work of building toys. Ditto for the Bunny’s enchanted forest, where the eggs help decorate themselves for the Easter hunt.

I went into “Rise of the Guardians” not expecting very much, and walked out convinced I had just seen the best animated movie of the year. What a gift.

3.5 stars out of four

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