/ rise of the guardians
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Mediocrity is a lot like gravity – it’s a universal force that threatens to trip us up with every step, and is only more likely to increase the higher we climb the ladder of ambition. Dreamworks Animation is no stranger to mediocrity: positioned unenviably as they are between the entertainment juggernauts of Disney and Pixar, they’ve made a living producing relentless sequels to initially original prospects (Shrek I-IV, Madagascar I-III) and unashamed cash-ins on other peoples’ ideas (Antz, Shark Tale, Megamind). But they’re also ambitious in a handsomely produced, aggressively marketed kind of way, which occasionally results in a minor masterpiece (a la How To Train Your Dragon) scurrying out the gate of creative interference and into the world at large. Which is what makes their fall from the stepladder of aspiration all the more crippling when their ambition far exceeds their precarious grip on the rungs of quality. Rise of the Guardians is a product of such a fall.
In an oddly religious and existential prologue, Jack Frost (Chris Pine) is born out of a frozen lake on the whim of The Man In The Moon, the silent, omniscient commander of ‘The Guardians’, a group of elite embodiments of childhood innocence and consumerist holidays. Given no clue as to whom he is or what he’s been created to do, Jack wanders the earth unseen for 300 years, bringing snow days and snowball fights in his wake. When Pitch Black (Jude Law), a malevolent relic of the Dark Ages, attempts to re-establish his grip on the minds of children, Jack finds himself summoned to take his destined place among ‘The Guardians’ – Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, and Sandman – and banish Pitch once again…
Described as The Avengers for children, there’s a certain truth in the comparison: both feature convenient team-ups of super-powered characters, both are broadly sketched in their narrative and dramatic terms, and both are fairly uninspired in their execution. While executed with a certain brightly-coloured, big-budget gloss, both films are detrimentally average products as a whole, feeling more like calculated marketing ventures than living breathing pieces of engaging art.
Which is odd, given how Guardians distinguishes itself from the usual animated retinue. The film is credited with a single director while often these films are split jointly, and the script is credited with a sole writer, instead of by a committee composed of every writer, producer, director and his dog. Guillermo del Toro even oversaw the production, which would lend an air of respectability to the film if his own films weren’t so often inconsistent exercises in pretty pictures with little substance. Peter Ramsey is a first-time director, and he lacks the necessary pieces missing from the overall puzzle.
Worse still is the voice acting, which is about as appropriate as a grandma’s annual Christmas wardrobe malfunction. Chris Pines lends the youthful Jack a gravely gravitas that would be fine if the character was thirty and smoked two packs a day, but as it is, just sits as wrong. In fact all, all the voices do: Alec Baldwin hams it up as a vaguely Russian Santa, Isla Fisher’s face squeaks out of a visually contemptible rendition of the Tooth Fairy, and Hugh Jackman is caught in a vortex of cinematic irony and temporal disturbance as an Easter Bunny with an Aussie twang. Jude Law makes a modest fit for his lithe, Twilight-esque villain, but Jude Law isn’t the most expressive of actors on a good day, and his voice alone lacks whatever else is going on in his eyes and face.
There’s an attempt at thematic unity in the film involving belief and the power of faith, which hints overall at a kind of divine parable that the film has otherwise gone out of its way to negate. Having the Easter Bunny tangentially symbolize “new life” over candy (or the “new life” of a particular crucifixion victim) works at an irreligious, non-denominational stretch, but seems rather stupid when you’re effectively telling children to “listen to the unspecific voice of the invisible all-knowing man who lives in the moon”. The way the Guardians’ existences are linked inextricably to the faith of children is a nice conceit, but the rules only apply when the film wants it to (such as the all-in deux ex machina conclusion), and feels vaguely stolen from another existing, most likely better film.
And ultimately, that’s what it comes down to: there are better films out there that engage, enchant, excite, and amuse. Rise of the Guardians isn’t a bad picture, but coming from a studio like Dreamworks, it never had much of a chance.