It’s strange when you realize that the people who you flip out about meeting are rarely the ones you expect will make you have that reaction. I’ve met people whose work has been important to me my whole life and handled it with relative grace and calm, and then I’ve also met a few people who rattled me face-to-face simply because I didn’t understand quite how significant their work is to me.
William Joyce is one of those people.
I love reading to my kids, and the books that end up in the constant rotation, the ones that we come back to over and over again, are the ones where the art and the prose are both approached with care and with soul. We’ve sampled books from dozens if not hundreds of authors, and there are certain guys who went right to the top of the permanent pile as soon as we read the books for the first time, and an uncommon number of those books were written and illustrated by William Joyce.
They are gorgeous, designed and painted with delicate wit and a lush sense of imagination, books like “Bently and Egg” and “Buddy” and “Santa Calls” and “The Leaf Men,” and he’s the creator of the “Rolie Polie Olie” books and TV show. His work has been a key part of films like “Meet The Robinsons” and “Robots,” and he’s just published two new books as part of what sounds like the biggest overall property of his career.
That’s why I was on the Dreamworks Glendale campus on Tuesday morning of this week. I was invited to see a presentation on their next big animated film, “Rise Of The Guardians,” and then to sit down with Peter Ramsey, the director of the film, as well as Christina Steinberg, who is the producer. And, yes, with William Joyce as well, which is how I realized that I am, indeed a huge William Joyce fan.
As it happens, so is James Rocchi, who was also there with me, and so as we discussed our love for books like “George Shrinks” and “Dinosaur Bob,” we were shown into the theater where we saw the pitch for the film.
If you’re curious, they’re not exactly being top secret about it. After all, Joyce just published two new books that serve as the introduction to the world he’s helped create for the movie. The first book is one of his oversized picture books, a gorgeous fantasy story called “The Man In The Moon.” It tells the story of MiM, the battle that his parents wage with Pitch, The Nightmare King, and the creation of the Guardians of Childhood. He’s also the co-writer and illustrator of “Nicholas St. North And The Battle of The Nightmare King,” the first in a series of novels about The Guardians.
And who are the Guardians? Well, here’s how they’re described in the opening of “The Man In The Moon”:
“You’ve known them since before you can remember and you’ll know them till your memories are like twilight: Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, the Easter Bunny, and the others. But the very first one was the Man in the Moon.”
And while that sounds incredibly basic… well, it is. And that seems to be what appeals to Joyce and to the team that’s working to bring the film to life, the very simple notion of creating one mythology that unites all these huge cultural characters, giving them a story that none of them really have.
That’s the starting point for the big idea that led Joyce to partner with Dreamworks on this big sprawling cross-media project. And as soon as he said it, I understood the appeal. As a storyteller, one of the things that really started to gnaw at me once I got to a certain age was the way we have these imaginary figures that are known around the world that somehow don’t really have fixed stories, a shared and accepted background. On the one hand, that gives filmmakers room to tell any story they want using Santa or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, but it also means that their power comes from being so vaguely imagined. Anyone can project anything they want onto the characters, and in this case, Joyce decided he wanted to tell a story that would make sense of all of these characters and unite them in some purpose.
We saw the very beginning of the film in a very rough state, and it’s the introduction of the character that serves as our way into the movie, Jack Frost, voiced by Chris Pine. He has no memory of who he is, his life beginning when he wakes up under the surface of a frozen lake. He rises from the lake, finds a staff there on the ice that causes frost to form over anything he touches with it, and then heads off to figure who he is.
The Guardians are all new versions of the familiar childhood icons, like Nicholas St. North, “a daredevil swordsman, ruffian, and notorious outlaw,” or an Easter Bunny with a worldwide network of tunnels and a sword, or a Tooth Fairy who keeps the teeth she takes until she can return them to the children who lost them for a very specific and sort of wonderful reason. Their task is to protect the very nature of childhood, to keep hopes and dreams alive and darkness away, and the payment they take is very simple: as long as children believe in them, they have power. If that ever stops, they would all go away.
That’s where Pitch, voiced by Jude Law, comes in. He’s the Nightmare King, and he hates the idea that children ever have sweet dreams. He wants to own those dreams, turn them dark and rancid, and he’s decided that the only way he’ll ever be able to do so is by getting rid of the Guardians, one by one.
We’ve got a premiere of the poster for the film for you today, and just this one single image gives you a sense of who Santa is in this film. Voiced by Alec Baldwin, he’s a huge larger than life figure who can seem gruff and scary in one moment, wise and jovial in another. He has what basically look like Russian prison tattoos running across both forearms, and his reindeer and sleigh are nothing like what we just saw in “Arthur Christmas.” This is Santa as a badass, and it’s an interesting interpretation, both visually and in the way Baldwin’s playing him.
What we don’t have is a better look at the art that we were shown during our sit-down conversation with the creative team. We were surrounded by images, including the Yetis who actually work at the North Pole. There are Elves too, little guys who wear their hats as full-body wardrobe, but the toys are made by Yetis who look like aggressively pissed-off pomeranians. We saw part of a sequence where the Easter Bunny and Jack Frost and the Sandman, who never speaks in the film except through sand shapes that he manifests around himself, all go to visit St. North at his secret home, and he ends up taking all of them on a wild sleigh ride, and even in a scene marked with some broad physical comedy and some wild CGI action, I was impressed by the sound of the film, the language of it, the elegance with which it lays out its fantasy world.
I guess I shouldn’t be shocked, then, that David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”) is the screenwriter here. Working from extensive notes and ideas prepared by Joyce, Lindsay-Abaire was the one charged with actually pulling all of the material together into a film. This is the sort of ultra-high-concept idea that could easily be crass or noisy or phony, but it feels like they’re reaching for something here with some scope and some beauty.
I liked what I heard of Hugh Jackman’s Easter Bunny and Isla Fisher’s Tooth Fairy, and Chris Pine seems like a good fit as a sort of trickster spirit who starts to realize that his actions matter in the world and he can’t just keep floating along, never choosing a side between wrong and right, good and evil. Each of the Guardians is so different visually and in terms of environment that you get the feeling it’s a very big world in which these stories are going on.
William Joyce has been working on this project in one form or another for almost 20 years, and he’s intimately involved in every aspect of getting this franchise up and running. And likewise, Dreamworks is credited inside both of the books he just put out, and they’re the ones who signed on to handle every part of this big dream he’s got. They’ve teamed him up with the filmmakers I’ve already mentioned as well as Guillermo Del Toro, an executive producer on the film, and it seems like this is a group that has a real handle on what film they’re trying to make, and both the time and the talent to get it right if they want to.
Here’s the sort of ambition we’re talking about. The novel series is going to be 13 books long, and it’s not scheduled to finish publication until 2015. The movie is really just one moment in a much larger narrative that Joyce is shaping, and it’s somewhat appropriate, based on his ambition, that one of his characters is The Sandman. He doesn’t have anything in common with Neil Gaiman’s character from his seminal comic series, but this reminds me of the sort of reach that Gaiman’s series had, pulling in mythology from around the world, blending inspirations, styles, and sensibilities into something that Joyce hopes feels timeless and that speaks to kids who are trying to make sense of these characters.
I like that the film feels very different from the sort of bright comic adventures that most animated films aspire to these days. Each of the Guardians lives in very different worlds, with very different palettes, and as we were shown a few sequences and some design work and a rough trailer, we got to see the way the characters have evolved visually over time. The Tooth Fairy, for example, originally had a much stronger Hindu influence, classically Indian in design, but her finished design makes her look more like a hummingbird or a tiny parakeet. Jackman’s getting a chance to turn up the Australian as the Easter Bunny. He’s heavily armed and he’s got a swagger to him, designed as a long, lean, muscular character.
My favorite design has to be The Sandman, though. I love that he doesn’t speak, and he rides around on a cloud of golden sand, perpetually chasing the sunset, showering the cities below him with the very stuff of dreams. He’s played for comic relief in some ways, but he’s also very wise. It’s going to be interesting to see how these very different characters play off of one another, and how they face down the challenge of Pitch, the force of evil in the film.
Pitch is being designed as a very real threat, and this is where you can see a bit of the Guillermo Del Toro in there. Joyce and his director Ramsey talked to us about how important it is to them to make the scary parts genuinely scary, and the movies they mentioned as touchstones, like “Sleeping Beauty” or “Fantasia” were movies that made huge impressions on young viewers because of the way the images seemed to be very primal and dark and terrifying on a basic level. Everyone we spoke with talked about how important it was to them to make the film feel like a big adventure, with peril and stakes and real scale.
Everything we saw is still very early, so there’s no way to know how it’s all going to come together. I do know that I read “The Man In The Moon” to the boys on Wednesday night, and they both loved its sense of whimsy and invention. We’re going to start in on the “Nicholas St. North” book this weekend, and Toshi’s already flipped through so he could see all of Joyce’s illustrations, fascinated by them. If these stories are all designed to work together and hook the potential audience for the film, then mission accomplished, and three tickets sold.
I’m not sure when you’re going to see the first trailer, because the one they showed us was very rough still, but when they do unleash it on the public, I expect you’ll have a strong reaction. It’s striking stuff, and as a first look, it was fairly persuasive.
“Rise Of The Guardians” arrives in theaters November 21, 2012.