I have a sinking feeling that somewhere in a small Hollywood office, some poor sap has the unenviable job of thinking of ways to shoehorn as many recognizable properties together in one story. It’s not good enough to have one superhero in a movie anymore; we need The Avengers (2012). Who wants to see a movie about just one monster? Let’s have them all in Hotel Transylvania (2012), and now, not content with a single secular entity of folklore, we have The Rise of the Guardians (2012), which gives us a team of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, Jack Frost, the Sand Man and the Easter Bunny.
I understand the theory, but the logic is flawed. See, combining beef and cheese and onions and lettuce does in fact make a burger, but Rise of the Guardians is more akin to combining a burger, chicken sandwich, foot-long hero and lasagna, which only makes diabetes. The idea is that by centering a story around characters the audience is already familiar with, it will save time on characterization (which the movie does avoid). But inventing a forced scenario in which all of these disparate figures coexist is like reinventing the wheel and makes for an unfocused mess. This is compounded by the fact that because it’s basically coming up with a new story with established characters, it can create any sort of rules it wants, leaving us with a number of odd sequences we don’t understand or even care to.
Here’s what I know: The Man in the Moon chooses Guardians who serve to protect the innocence of children. They are North (voice of Alec Baldwin), a hulking, bearded man with the words “Naughty” and “Nice” tattooed on his arms, Bunny (Hugh Jackman), a surly rabbit with an inferiority complex, Tooth (Isla Fisher), a sweet pixie who looks like Papagena with butterfly wings, and the Sand Man, who doesn’t speak but communicates by making messages out of the cloud-like granules of his body. Their newest member is Jack (Chris Pine) who can create ice, but Jack doesn’t recognize his inclusion in the group; he’s bitter that children hardly believe in him the way they do the others and opts to spend most his time alone. However, when Pitch (Jude Law), a boogeyman who creates nightmares, threatens the psyche of the world’s children with his terrifying black fog, Jack must be brought into the fold and protect the kids.
The movie is based on a series of books that I have not read but would hope are a little more clear in the nature of this world than the movie. As best as I can understand, the Guardians’ existence is dependent on children believing in them, so where the popular North is very real to children, the less ubiquitous Jack exists but remains invisible. If enough children doubt your existence, you disappear entirely. Pitch’s plan is to frighten the adolescent population into disregarding their protectors. The fine print is a little fuzzy, however, and the characters are constantly fluctuating in their virility for difficult–to–grasp reasons. The point, however, is simple for children. Jack is on the path to becoming Pitch, who is similarly embittered by being ignored, and it takes the pure joy of goodness and serving others to remind him that doing good is its own reward. I feel like the message would be more powerful if it wasn’t cluttered with peripheral distractions.
If Rise of the Guardians were light and bouncy like Wreck-It Ralph (2012), I might have got swept up in the manic confusion, but Dreamworks, which released Guardians, always seems to pitch its animated movies a number of shades darker than Disney, who owns Ralph. Just to compare them, Ralph felt manic but exhilarating; yet, for all its energy, it took place in only a few locations. Guardians is all over the place both in story and place, and as Joe Morgenstern wrote about it in the Wall Street Journal, “a surfeit of motion vitiates emotion.” Dreamworks also has a history of wanting to be subversive in their kids’ movies; that ends up coming off as cynicism, which is on full display here, and that too-cool-for-school attitude takes some of the bite out of the message of magic.
Coupled with its restlessness is the movie’s lack of visual invention. Yes, it looks terrific, but it has an opportunity to create some good visuals by having beings that create all kinds of incredible phenomena but mainly wastes it. The movie’s most visually interesting character, the Sand Man, who can create dreams with his ethereal body, is removed from the story early on. I did like the look of Tooth and her underlings, Baby Teeth, but the rest are fairly generic, especially Pitch, who is surrounded by fearsome and impressive ghouls but looks like a dentist himself. Rise of the Guardians will keep children’s attention I have no doubt, but a movie should engage an imagination, not simply keep it awake.