It is not often that an animated film is as thematically rich, filled with fully-rounded characters and as frankly moving as Rise of the Guardians, opening today and based on William Joyce’s Guardians of Childhood series. While many (if not most) animated films at least achieve a level of sentiment through forced or cheaply manipulative means, Rise presents a level of richness and complexity that is seldom found even in today’s adult film fare. Rise presents issues of love and loss, life and death, the persistence of memory, the power of belief and the measure of identity; for all of its high spirits and freewheeling shenanigans, there is also a surprising vein of melancholy. It is a film not to be missed, one that can be savored by both children and adults alike, albeit for different reasons.
The Guardians – both the books and film – represent a dramatic change in Joyce’s oeuvre. Over the past decades the scope of his stories and the emotional weight of his work have increased in heft and urgency. Joyce’s early work was often pitched in a minor key – problems, when they existed at all, were usually expelled by an afternoon with friends or by dancing the hokey pokey. However, life and time have left their mark on the artist, and he has become engaged with larger scale questions, such as the nature of sorrow, the pursuit of happiness and their balance in the lives of both children and adults.
If this sounds weighty for a children’s movie, you haven’t been paying attention. Joyce’s long-term concern has always been the very alchemy of happiness, how it functions and how it survives. His is a unique contemporary voice in that he is devoid of irony, sweet in his sincerity, delighted by his passions and fueled by its sense of wonder.
Rise of the Guardians is an independent entity from Joyce’s current, ongoing Guardians of Childhood series. The book chronicles how the great figures of children’s folklore – Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, and Sandman, among others – band together under the guidance of the Man in the Moon to protect the children of the Earth. Rise takes place several hundreds of years after the book series, with the Guardians already in place and working as a (somewhat argumentative) team.
Rise is told from the point of view of a new character, Jack Frost, the spirit of winter, who is recruited by the Guardians to join their number in a renewed battled against Pitch – also known as the Boogeyman. It can be regarded as the final origin story for the Guardians, and the starting point for a series of animated adventures. (One hopes.) The screenplay, by David Lindsay-Abaire, skillfully mixes comedy and pathos, as well as action scenes and intimate moments that linger in the memory.
Rise boasts a charming score by Alexandre Desplat, and a closing song performed by soprano Renee Fleming. Already, the filmmakers win points for creating an animated fantasy that does not include jarring (and ugly) rap and hip hop numbers, fart jokes and puerile pop cultural references. In an era of animated films that date badly scant months after they are released, Rise will be entertaining children for decades to come.
Rise features a host of spectacular voice performances, starting with Alec Baldwin as Santa Claus. Baldwin plays the jolly old elf with a heavy Russian accent (as described by Joyce in the books), and seems to be having so much fun, one wonders if he paid Dreamworks in order to do it. In what is perhaps a nod to his role as announcer for the New York Philharmonic on WNYC, he often uses the names of Russian composers instead of expletives – most wonderfully thundering “Rimsky Korsakov!” when falling down.
Hugh Jackman is an amusing, brawling Easter Bunny – a significant change of the character from Joyce’s books. Where Joyce presents the Bunny as something of a furry Mr. Spock, Jackman’s Bunny is a smart-talking Australian tough guy in constant competition against Baldwin’s Santa. Their backbiting rivalry is one of the chief joys of the film.
Isla Fisher gives voice to the Tooth Fairy, a role written as sweeter and less formidable than her book counterpart. This works wonderfully well in the context of the film, her warm accessibility balances the more antic vocalizations of Baldwin and Jackman.
However, the two finest performances in the film belong to Chris Pine as Jack Frost and Jude Law as Pitch. Pine plays Frost with both an edgy insouciance and a wounded melancholy. Frost is the spirit of winter, but has no memory of his past or sense of purpose. Worse still, unlike other Guardians, people cannot see him. Because children do not believe in him with the same fever as Santa or the Bunny, he is incorporeal and invisible. There is a moment about midway through the film when he can be seen by a child for the first time that had your correspondent blubbering into coat sleeve – it’s a fine performance that is beautifully animated.
Law as Pitch comes very close to stealing the film – it is simply the best vocal performance in an animated film since Peter O’Toole in Ratatouille. Law shows remarkable vocal range – sinister, seductive, anguished and afraid. The filmmakers also changed the visual conception of Pitch from that of the novels for the better: he is quite baroque in Joyce’s books, and in the film he is long and sleek in a flowing robe. Horse-faced with tiny, yet evil looking teeth and a passel of evil stallions (literally night-mares), Pitch is a remarkable creation.
Of course, there are quibbles. Rise is directed with energy by Peter Ramsey, but one cannot help but think that under the baton of someone like Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton or Steven Spielberg, what now glows would actually shimmer. The action is, to an aged viewer like myself, sometimes too frenetic by half, and I wish that the art direction mirrored Joyce’s earlier books (like his masterful Santa Calls), but these are all minor carps.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the film is the Frost-Pitch duality. Both suffer the same problem: they are largely invisible because fewer and fewer children believe in them. While Frost is wounded by this, his natural inclination is to meet the situation with a sense of fun; Pitch to terrify children into belief. What Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay does so beautifully is realize that the existential pain is nearly the same for both. In his monologues, Pitch is nearly as sympathetic as he is menacing, and Law manages to milk that emotional current beautifully.
Finally, the film also seems to be an assertion of the fundamental tenant of Joyce’s overarching philosophy: that high spirits, a sense of fun and a touch of panache is enough to keep even the darkest spirits at bay. Let’s hope he’s right.
Rise of the Guardians is the perfect holiday film and comes highly recommended.