Whisper it quietly, but the occasionally-maligned DreamWorks Animation seems to have found yet another vein of form. Madagascar: Europe’s Most Wanted was surprisingly witty, enjoyable and worthwhile, in spite of being the third entry in its franchise. And now comes Rise Of The Guardians, the first in what is no doubt a series of adaptations of William Joyce’s The Guardians Of Childhood books.
The setup is straightforward enough. The Guardians of the film’s title are the united force of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman and the Tooth Fairy (each suitably stylised). Faced with the impending threat of The Boogeyman and his desire to fill the dreams of the planet’s young with nightmares, they find themselves with a new recruit, in the shape of Jack Frost. And, from there, comes together a battle between good and evil, which ultimately rests on the belief of children, or otherwise.
Last year, of course, we had another film that sought to explore the possible backstory of one of the film’s characters. The terrific Arthur Christmas spent an entire film with Santa Claus and his family, but Rise Of The Guardians doesn’t have that luxury. Instead, it scratches around them, unable to give them the depth that Joyce could provide on the printed page. And yet Peter Ramsey’s movie is confident in choosing its details, and it does a solid job of introducing its cast of characters – through the eyes of outsider Jack Frost – as well as the force they’re up against. It’s not interested in going through each and giving an origin story for them all, thankfully. The familiarity of the characters themselves means that Rise Of The Guardians can make some assumptions of its audiences, and crack on with telling its story instead.
Where the film strikes gold, then, is in its terrific visuals, and a series of very strong and striking action sequences. DreamWorks’ own Puss In Boots was similarly action-packed, but there, said sequences felt more about treading water and filling time, distracting the audience with noise and colour. The action in Rise Of The Guardians, though, is the most exciting that DreamWorks has put on the screen since How To Train Your Dragon, and unlike something like Sony’s Hotel Transylvania, there’s enough glue in the narrative in-between to contextualise it and give it meaning. It’s not action for the sake of it, it’s action because the crumbs have been laid to get the story there.
Furthermore, it looks stunning. Not just in technical way, although the graphical arms race for CG animation still clearly has ceiling room left in it. Rather that getting Roger Deakins on board as a consultant has proven, not for the first time, a masterstroke (the same too for Guillermo del Toro, it should be said). The composition of some of the shots is fantastic, and there’s both a scope and majesty to many of the visuals. It’s not just restricted to buildings and environments, either. The introduction of Jack Frost injects some quiet, wonderful wintery effects that look quite brilliant on the big screen.
Credit, too, for an outstanding score from Alexandre Desplat. You might want to be buying yourself a copy of that.
The film does falter in a couple of areas. Firstly, the Boogeyman is a surprisingly underwhelming antagonist. Considering the fringes of darkness that Rise Of The Guardians is willing to explore, when it gets to the core of its main villain, he proves surprisingly weak. His actions, and the fury he unleashes, look spectacular. But Jude Law seems a curious voicing choice: there’s nothing particularly sinister or creeping-under-the-skin about the way he delivers the lines. It’s clearly a deliberate choice, just not a particularly successful one.
The other issue is arguably not so much of a problem, more of a decision the filmmakers took. Rise Of The Guardians is firmly committed to entertaining under 12s, and as such, it’s less interested in their parents. Many animated films now try and operate on two levels, but Rise Of The Guardians – while hardly alienating to adults – is content with targeting one level as well as it can. That’s fine, too, but there’s a tangible lack of wit and edge to Rise Of The Guardians that could have potentially lifted it still further.
Yet for every adult that may just be a little underwhelmed by Rise Of The Guardians, there are three children out there who are going to love it. At its peak – and there are many peaks here – it’s terrific family entertainment, and it makes the idea of a reunion with these characters a few years down the line an enticing one. Furthermore, it’s not afraid to be a little bit scary in places, and at no stage does it seek to pacify and talk down to its target audience.
It’s a successful movie, this. It’s not quite DreamWorks Animation at the peak of its powers, but it’s really not far off at all. And when the movie hits top gear, it’s exhilarating, exciting, and a tightly constructed ride, one that’s off the screen before it has any chance to outstay its welcome.
One final thing. Rise Of The Guardians is also, movingly, dedicated to William Joyce’s daughter, who tragically died during the production of the film, leading to Joyce stepping down as co-directing. From where we’re sat, it’s a lovely tribute to her, and our heart goes out to the Joyce family.
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