By far the most interesting element of Rise Of The Guardians—an animated film inspired by William Joyce’s Guardians book series—is a sequence where antagonist Pitch Black (Jude Law) attempts to recruit protagonist Jack Frost (Chris Pine) as an ally and companion. In that moment, it’s immensely clear that the hero has more in common with the villain than he does with his fellow heroes; they’re both frustrated, disenfranchised outsiders, with exactly the same goals. Only their methods differ. Admirably, their similarities aren’t limited to that scene, either; they run throughout the film, giving it nuance and a hint of thoughtfulness. But while Rise Of The Guardians boasts a great deal of visual energy and amounts to a lot of fun, it’s mostly lacking in that kind of depth elsewhere.
The film starts with Jack Frost being born out of a frozen lake, bereft of memories or purpose; he quickly discovers his frost-making abilities in a giddy, joyous rush, but still doesn’t understand who he is or why he came into being. Three hundred years later, he’s come to grudging, sometimes resentful terms with a handful of other conceptually scattershot entities, including the Easter Bunny (tribal-tattooed, kick-ass, and for some reason voiced by Hugh Jackman at his Aussie-est), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the Sandman (a mute, beatific figure), and especially North (Alec Baldwin), a tattooed, bluffly warm Russian take on Santa Claus. Then the Man In The Moon silently communicates that Jack is meant to join the other four as a Guardian, a protector of children’s innocence worldwide—just as Pitch, a.k.a. the Boogeyman, attempts to blot out their belief in the Guardians altogether, and usher in a new Dark Age.
While the plot sounds cloyingly precious, somewhere between one of Rankin-Bass’ sweet old origins-of-holidays TV specials and a Care Bears cartoon, longtime animator and first-time director Peter Ramsey stages the action beautifully. In particular, the Sandman’s execution of dreams suggests a strong awareness of Hayao Miyazaki, though with a revved-up American sensibility and a strong, winning appreciation of 3-D space. (Roger Deakins’ role as a visual consultant says a lot about the filmmakers’ commitment to dazzling cinematography.) And the film has an odd spiritual flavor, with the Man In The Moon representing a benign, distant God—Jack is constantly trying to divine his will and being frustrated over his refusal to communicate—while Pitch makes a sleek, urbane, deliciously chilling Lucifer, the type of devil who sees God as an adversary in a cosmic game, and who’s perfectly willing to buy souls if anyone’s selling.
That big picture is at odds with Rise Of The Guardians’ overcrowded aesthetic, which sometimes seems to cram every other frame full of wacky minions and eye-popping inventions for sheer love of spectacle, and sometimes because they’d make eminently marketable toys. At least all the subsidiary business is enjoyably distracting, as Guardians attempts to flesh out that bog-standard good-vs.-evil plotline into something more uniquely textured. In the end, the film relies too heavily on deus ex machina to earn its emotions or its resolution. But it does fairly earn rapt attention for a solid percentage of its gloriously frantic runtime.