“It’s like having Santa Claus around,” jokes author William Joyce at a press conference. Joyce is talking about Guillermo Del Toro, the executive producer of “Rise of the Guardians.” The film, based on works by Joyce, already features a different Santa (voiced by Alec Baldwin). It also has the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), and Jack Frost (Chris Pine, although according to Fisher, Leonardo DiCaprio was in the role at one point).
As the franchise’s origin story goes, once upon a time William Joyce’s daughter came to him after knocking out her brother’s tooth and asked if the Tooth Fairy knows Santa Claus. According to Joyce, the question “opened a Pandora’s Box that I’ve been trying to answer for 18 years.” The answer, still being fleshed out, is the Guardians of Childhood series which currently stands at five books, a short film, and this upcoming motion picture from DreamWorks.
Del Toro is overseeing the feature film project in the role of executive producer. Although as he explains it, he is doing an “apprenticeship” at DreamWorks, learning about various aspects of storytelling in general and here the process of animation in particular. Del Toro wants to learn “every tool there is to tell a story,” because “in the next five to 10 years the way we tell stories is going to change radically” and he thinks that knowing about the process of telling a story in novels, videogames, and various styles of filmmaking will help him. Certainly, Joyce’s “Guardians” series fits that bill with its existence across multiple media.
In Del Toro’s eyes, his job as executive producer is, in part, “to give the best ideas you can.” He noted prior to that statement that “if you make the mistake of thinking you are directing, then you’re not producing right. You should support the director’s vision.”
Why is he executive producing “Guardians” specifically? Del Toro states that one of the first things that captivated him about the movie was that it wasn’t about taking “pop references in the last 10 years or trying to be hip and now, but was actually trying to be timeless.” As noted, the series as a whole puts together a handful of traditionally separate, iconic figures from children’s stories, each of whom separately has become a timeless character.
The film takes place a couple of centuries following the conclusion of the book series and consequently the characters are somewhat different from one to the other. Despite this time differential, the bad guy from the book series, Pitch (the bogeyman), returns with a dastardly new plan. Voiced by Jude Law, Pitch’s goal is to destroy children’s belief in the guardians.
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According to Joyce, the books are about “how they [the Guardians] became who they are” and the movie is about “what they are.” With Santa (or Nicholas St. North), screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire states that “The spirit of him is exactly the same” in the novel and in the books. Those who have read the books and then see the film will note that North is certainly more human in the opening of the first book than he is in the opening of the film. When we meet him in the books, he doesn’t know of magic and North has not yet taken on the Santa persona.
One of the things that doesn’t change from the books to the movie is North’s Russian-ness and in fact, Baldwin voices him with a Cossack accent. At the press conference, Baldwin talks about the necessity of learning an accent and then backing off it to make it easier for audiences to grasp, jokingly noting that he tried to do something akin to Boris Badenov and “The whole ‘Rocky & Bullwinkle’ thing.” Baldwin lets his stage experience show through here, first with talking about the accent, discussing how in the theater you would be coached on an accent only to be told to back off it later, and then soon after talking about the ability to change a scene or a performance after beginning the play/the start of filming. As Del Toro earlier stated at the press conference, doing animation “gives you time to think.”
The Cossack nature of Santa may surprise many, but that isn’t the only thing that will cause some to wonder with the character in Guardians. The Nicholas St. North we get in the series comes out of a background of thievery-certainly not a very Santa-like characteristic. He may be much more traditional Santa here, but does sport a couple of tattoos, one saying “Naughty” and the other “Nice.”
Looks, and voices, can be deceiving, and while he may be a warrior, Santa in “Rise” is still a warm lovable good guy, and presumably Baldwin would not have played him otherwise. “I was offered an exorbitant amount of money-a huge amount of money-to voice a character in one of these videogames where I was going to play this contract killer for the mafia who killed a police officer and I said to them ‘That’s never happening.'” He continues “I think most people have a conscience about it and I knew that I wanted to do this one [“Rise”]…it’s good for kids, it’s very sweet.” The film, he argues, “Reinforces the idea of believing in yourself.” That notion of believing is true to the books as well, where every magic spell begins “I believe. I believe. I believe.”
Whether Del Toro, Baldwin, Joyce, and the rest are able to take that belief and weave a magic spell that entrances audiences remains to seen.