William Joyce is one of the best guys working today in the world of children’s books, and the work he produces deserves to be added to the same shelf where we put names like Sendak and Silverstein and Seuss. He has a beautiful, instantly recognizable art style, and he writes in the loveliest cascades of language. There’s something very dreamy and very familiar about his work as soon as you’re introduced to it. He is absolutely among the top tier of people who do what he does, and “Rise Of The Guardians” is, before anything, a tribute to his storytelling style and a fairly remarkable realization of the visual worlds he creates.
The film, written by David Lindsay-Abaire and directed by Peter Ramsey, begins with Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine) slowing waking up to consciousness. He remembers nothing. He is newborn to his powers, and we watch him get his footing, like the early scenes in “Bambi,” and then leave into the wider world. He doesn’t really understand the way the world works or what his place in it is, and he operates on an instinctual level.
It is only once there is a crisis that he is contacted by The Guardians of Childhood, a loose affiliation of powerful magic beings including North (Alec Baldwin), Tooth (Isla Fisher), a beatific silent Sandman, and a badass warrior Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman). They reach out to Jack because they need help fighting off Pitch Dark (Jude Law), the king of Nightmares, who is determined to make himself the greatest magical force on Earth by making sure no children believe in the Guardians anymore and that all they believe in are his horrible dreams.
As hero’s journeys go, it’s pretty standard-issue stuff, but the world itself is richly imagined and detailed with all sorts of strange, gorgeous choices. There is a sense of humor to the film, but it neatly avoids all of the jokiness of the typical Dreamworks movies. They’ve been moving away from that in their most recent films, and it’s no coincidence that the movies seem to get better the less they depend on song montage and pop culture references. This is a world that feels modern but that doesn’t specifically tie itself to anything that is of this specific moment. It’s not like there’s a Macy Gray cameo or a scene where they run into Spuds McKenzie or something. It feels like they’ve tried to make it feel timeless, like it could be taking place in pretty much any time.
In terms of design, it’s a beautiful world that they’ve created. Each of the different homes of the different Guardians is realized in a very detailed and organic way, and I like how there’s a lot of earthy pagan imagery, and much of the inspiration is drawn from nature. The Tooth Fairy is basically part hummingbird, and all the little Mini Fairies she’s got working for her are decidedly hummingbird in size and speed. They all talk to her via telepathy, and they work to collect the teeth from around the world and place them in tiny memory drawers inside the palace of Tooth. Each child’s tooth that is lost has certain memories attached to it, and that’s why the Tooth Fairy preserves them. The notion of Pitch violating that trust and erasing all those childhood memories may not be scary in the “BOO!” in your face style of thing, but it’s effective and sad and gives the Tooth Fairy’s job a particular melancholy. I love the Sentinels, these giant stone eggs that stand guard at the Warren of Bunny, covered in moss and crumbling and serene. I love the little Eggs with legs of their own, running through the Warren in various stages of production. The design for Bunny is almost like he’s a kangaroo, and they play him as a badass with a soft side, which is perfect for Hugh Jackman to play.
It’s also an interesting choice that this is not the story of how the Guardians came to be a group. That story is being told by Joyce in a series of books. There are large picture books aimed at younger readers, and there are also some young adult novels that are aimed at older kids. Both types of books are written with a very gentle warm approach to fairy tale storytelling, and they’ve been a big hit with my kids since we got the first one, “The Man In The Moon.” In the film, Jack Frost is the main character, the one struggling to figure out his place in the order of things, and we learn about the Guardians and their world through him. It’s his journey to becoming one of them and figuring out how he became who he is, and what he was before that. The answer is a little darker than one might expect, but it’s handled with a grace that will make it palatable for even the most tender of sensibilities, and it helps that Pine does very grounded, honest work in the role.
The other Guardians get to play it bigger, and there seems to have been no limit on how big they let Alec Baldwin go with his performance. If Sean Connery had starred in a version of “Boris and Natasha,” that would perfectly describe the accent he’s using here, and he plays North much like Jackman plays the Bunny. There’s a softness inside this blustery outsized presence that explains how a Cossack soldier could also be the gift-giving spirit of Christmas. One of the real triumphs of design in the film is their idea of the North Pole. That’s one of those things that I’ve seen done wrong more times than I can count, and I was sort of dreading that it would be like “The Polar Express,” but it was a pointless anxiety. This is William Joyce storybook reality, and it is both magic and functional, a nice mix. There are teeny tiny Elves, and they’re basically non-verbal little animals. Then there are also these Yetis, giant furry abominable snowmen with Japanese topknots and an almost dainty presence. The Yetis make me smile every single time they’re onscreen, like Santa picked up a bunch of Wookies who like samurai films.
The Sandman works as a silent character because the design is so strong, and there’s so much beauty in the way he rides through the film on these golden clouds of dreamland. He is not a pushover, though, and there are some great action beats involving him. The film builds to some big fight sequences, and things go pretty much the way you think they’re going to, but because they leave the film in a place where they can keep telling stories with these characters, I’m okay with the first film simply being a good story. Not a great one, but a good one. The world, though, is enormously appealing and they’re just beginning to figure out what they can do with these characters and threats to childhood. Dreamworks is so aggressive about making sequels and series these days that I hope this becomes one of the properties they explore further. Peter Ramsey’s got a fluid directorial signature, and he really embraces the freedom of the animated camera, doing things that would be nightmarishly hard to do in live-action. Lindsay-Abaire’s script is best when it focuses on the Guardians and their conflict with Pitch, and at the weakest when dealing with some kids who live in the neighborhood where Jack Frost wakes up at the start of the film. It’s pretty clear that the appeal here is in the interplay between the Guardians, and it’s frustrating to cut away to characters who aren’t as interesting. Thankfully, the filmmakers seem aware of it as well.
“Rise of the Guardians” should please family audiences with its strong central characters and its delicate touch with humor and observation, and while it’s a little soft in certain stretches, when it connects, there is magic here.
“Rise Of The Guardians” opens November 23, 2012.