Thursday, 10 January 2013

Rise of the Guardians Review

I said in my Brave review that I only managed to catch one animated film last year. I admitted that ParaNorman and Rise of the Guardians (or even Frankenweenie and Madagascar 3) might have been better. I also said that only two Dreamworks films were markedly better than Cars 2.
While the jury's still out on the first point (I won't be sure until I see them both again) I'm happy to announce that Rise of the Guardians is Dreamworks' third best film to date and definitely better than Cars 2.
It's also, at the risk of upsetting Bane, my second favourite superhero film of 2012!

The Guardians of the title are an elite team of mythological beings who come together in times of crisis to protect the children of the world. The concept comes from a book series called The Guardians of Childhood (a much better, more informative title) but where the books offered backstories for each Guardian, the film opens with the team already established and familiar with one another. Even Jack Frost - new recruit and the audience's eyes and ears through the story - is already on a first-name basis with the others.
The first-names in question are North (Father Christmas), Sandy (the Sandman), Bunny (as in Easter) and Tooth (as in Fairy). It helps that we already know these characters. It also helps that these are not the characters we know. North is a tattooed Russian heavy with a penchant for cutlasses; Bunny's a hairy, long-eared Crocodile Dundee; Tooth is more hummingbird than traditional fairy. The film has no interest in explaining any of this - these simply are the characters. Amid the current movie obsession with origins, this feels surprisingly refreshing.

Things kick off with the return of ancient enemy Pitch Black (the Bogeyman), a genuinely creepy character voiced by Jude Law, who threatens to sap children's belief in the Guardians. Belief is power here, and a myth not believed in becomes weak and intangible.
Though Pitch is a devious villain rather than a direct physical threat - straight from the Loki school of Divide and Conquer - the film is sure to prove how dangerous he is. It's not afraid to get pretty dark in places, shocking you and upping the stakes significantly.
It's not afraid to go the other way either, though, finding the sweet-spot between real darkness and a good sense of fun. There's a rooftop caper sequence which is essentially all jokes, but there are also battles and chases and massive airborne faceoffs. These range from exhilarating to silly, but are never less than enjoyable.

While nothing in the film has the sheer polish of Brave, it makes up for it with the scale and varied design that Pixar's film was lacking. The locations are vast, numerous and frequently gorgeous - North's workshop, Tooth's massive sky palace, Bunny's ancient temple, and many less fantastical places - and the action that takes place in them is no less huge. Much of the fighting takes the form of spectacular magic displays, with Jack causing explosions of ice and Sandy creating anything he needs from dream-sand. Oh, and almost everyone has their own private army. It's a big film.

Despite this scale and an often breakneck pace, the story remains tightly focused and intimate. Jack does not have the love and belief of children like the others do (modern kids haven't even heard of him) so, despite his roguish nature, he's actually quite a tragic, lonely figure. This is never overplayed or rubbed in your face, but the subtle animation and fantastic voice-work from Chris Pine make it felt just enough.
By not losing sight of this - by anchoring its spectacle in something meaningful, even in the biggest, craziest scenes - Guardians rises (sorry) above the simple mashup it could have been.
The whole film is a tight balancing act - weighing light moments against dark, traditional characters against unfamiliar weirdness, wide scope against a deeply personal story. Somehow it gets that balance just right, delivering a brilliant experience that appeals to every emotion and looks fantastic while doing it.

Sadly, despite all this, Rise of the Guardians has bombed at the box-office. I personally blame the forgettable, meaningless title (see also: John Carter). This is a real shame because if Dreamworks are determined to milk all their franchises to death (spoiler - they are) then this, more than Panda and far more than Dragon, has actual sequel potential. If they listen to the money then we may never see those sequels.
Then again, maybe we will. There's always home sales. We just have to believe.