Scaring up magic from childhood
By Michael O’Sullivan
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Thoughts become things. That’s the message of “Rise of the Guardians,” a charming if slightly dark and cobwebbed animated feature about how believing in something makes it real, or real enough.
That theme is a bit of storytelling DNA that the movie, loosely based on William Joyce’s picture books “The Guardians of Childhood,” cribs from both “Peter Pan” and “The Velveteen Rabbit.” It’s hardly grand larceny. The idea is an old one, yet “Rise of the Guardians” takes it and makes it its own. It’s a lovely and original tale.
The question of what’s real or not here revolves around a group of venerable protective spirits called the Guardians: Santa Claus, known as North (Alec Baldwin); the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman); the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher); and the Sandman, who never speaks. Collectively, they are what gets those of us of a certain age through the night.
The arrival of a young fifth spirit, Jack Frost (Chris Pine), sets the story in motion. Or rather, the arrival of the Bogeyman, known as Pitch Black (Jude Law), does.
Pitch is the bringer of nightmares. His resurgence, after years of being held at bay by the Guardians, mobilizes the film’s heroes, who must accept the help of the untested and somewhat irresponsible Jack, whose only powers don’t seem terribly useful in banishing evil. Jack can induce snow days with a wave of his wooden staff, whose touch covers the world with a cascading craquelure of ice. (The animated frost is the most beautiful element of this 3-D movie, which otherwise is a little cold, emotionally, for my taste.)
In addition to the showdown between the Guardians and Pitch -- who’s startlingly scary, especially for younger children -- there’s another conflict. Few kids actually believe in Jack Frost, other than as a quaint metaphor for cold weather.
The drama revolves around this problem. As Pitch becomes more powerful, more and more kids start believing in their nightmares and fewer and fewer in the Guardians, who at times resemble a junior Justice League, doing battle against Doctor Destiny.
Except one little boy, Jamie (Dakota Goyo), refuses to give up his beliefs. He alone can see Jack, probably as a result of a sledding accident that Jack inadvertently caused at the beginning of the film. It’s this power of Jamie’s belief that makes Jack, and the other Guardians, real again.
That’s a sweet thought, and the story, by Pulitzer-winning playwright and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”) spins it out with magic and dark delight. It might sound fluffy, but it’s not. Like fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, parts of “Rise of the Guardians” cast strong shadows.
But there are laughs, too. Baldwin, who does a surprisingly credible Russian accent, makes an appealing, if unusually unjolly, Santa, with Jackman’s Aussie-accented, boomerang-wielding Easter Bunny providing much of the comic relief.
It might not have been on your Christmas list, but with its fresh take on the power of myths, “Rise of the Guardians” is one present you won’t want to return.
Contains scary sequences and a frightening character.