Movie Review: Rise of the Guardians- A Better Attempt at Character Focused Animation by DreamWorks Even if Done Too Conventionally

DreamWorks Animation is extremely busy pumping out two movies a year and that lack of attention to each film is what might explain why they haven’t reached the depth or character involvement that is evident in their creative rival Pixar. The difference between children’s animated films and family animated films has always been clear between DreamWorks, which embodies the former, and Pixar, which embodies the latter. However, these last couple of years DreamWorks has been surprising us with better than average films when they aren’t mass producing sequels and spinoffs such as Puss N Boots or Madagascar 3. Indeed they began stepping up their character focus and introducing more relevant themes not only for children but also for adults especially with How to Train Your Dragon. DreamWorks newest film Rise of the Guardians is perhaps one of their better works not only with visually captivating animation but instead diverting their focus from slapstick chaotic children’s gimmicks to creating a protagonist with a drive to find purpose, a battle between knowing the past and confronting the future, and an adept side to sliding to temptation. Utilizing all the familiar and delightful myths of our childhood, Rise of the Guardians becomes a sweet, exciting, and surprisingly thoughtful animation film resembling an unlikely combination of The Avengers and The Never-ending Story and is well worth experiencing despite surrender to the more childish aspects of animation at the end. If DreamWorks learns from this film’s great combination of energy and heart then they might begin to make an impact on quality family entertainment instead of monopolizing their time with children appeasement. If anything, Rise of the Guardians will be more entertaining than you previously might have expected based on the earlier material shown in the previews.

Perhaps the evident success of Rise of the Guardians moving away from child chaotic frenzy to character focused adventure comes from the fact that it’s based on strong source material by William Joyce and not original Hollywood drivel. This doesn’t mean that his material hasn’t been ruined before since Disney’s Meet the Robinsons was a mess of a film that didn’t take its source material too seriously. It seems screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire learned from his unsatisfying previous works (Inkheart, Robots) and uses the original book as a guideline for a relatively intriguing and relevant story about someone who questions their purpose in a world they didn’t ask to be created in. At the center of the film is a myth from our childhood Jack Frost (Chris Pine) who cannot be seen by anyone based on a lack of belief in his existence. He was told by the moon that he was a guardian when life was breathed into him but he was never sure of what or for whom. Jack Frost is reluctantly swept up into a battle between belief and fear when the Boogie Man otherwise known as Pitch Black (Jude Law) challenges the guardianship of the other childhood myths, which include Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), The Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), Sandman, and the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher). The basic plot structure is rather simple and some of the chosen creative launching points to further the plot never exactly feel inspired but rather a formulaic dedication to the genre. There are some interesting parallels between Jack Frost and the Boogie Man and how they are the light and dark side of each other’s choices but it is done so superficially most likely because getting any deeper would lose most children’s attention. However, the strong point is in the character Jack Frost who like us all wants recognition and above all wants to know his purpose. Because of this dedication to a character that DreamWorks rarely invests in the film transcends a bit beyond its formulaic plot construction to give the audience a bit more than just action, cute humor, and visually captivating animation.

There is hardly an animation film these days that doesn’t have really good looking visuals but there something to be said with how they choose to present it. With DreamWorks only How to Train Your Dragon really captured the audience with its visual flight simulation making the experience one of full immersion. While Rise of the Guardians isn’t up to that level of animated experience there is no doubting its visual clearness and intriguing color disparities that not only distinguish characters but also does a good job at distinguishing tone. Watching the one battle between Sandman and the Boogie Man is one of those quite captivating visual sequences because of its drastic color tones between gold and black. All of the separate worlds, whether it’s the Easter Bunny’s underground lair or the Tooth Fairy’s floating fortress, are all designed beautifully even if their presence is rather fleeting in the construct of the plot. Most of the action segments are done rather well and have a visual touch that animates them for the audience, such as the ice blasts from Jack Frost’s staff or the dark waves of dust coming from Pitch Black. There are, of course, some cheesy uses of 3D pop up gimmicks but that is luckily secondary to the overall presentation throughout Rise of the Guardians. And while the visuals are always good in a DreamWorks film the voice acting is not but that is one area that DreamWorks got right this time around.

Most DreamWorks animation films have always focused on getting big name actors based on their recognized voices instead of choosing actual actors to embody a character and actually portray them. Just look at the Kung Fu Panda movies, which have Jack Black in the prominent role because of his popularity and fixated the character around getting him to play it. This was also an evident choice when making the Madagascar movies with the recognizable and marketable voices of Ben Stiller and Chris Rock. In Rise of the Guardians we have a deviation from this trend actors either less recognizable for marketing purposes or actual voice play in creating a character. The latter creative choice is most evident with Alec Baldwin doing quite a good rendition on a Russian accent for his portrayal of Santa Claus and also with Hugh Jackman reverting to his lesser known actual Australian accent for his portrayal of the Easter Bunny. Two other voices to note are Chris Pine’s every man protagonist that was well chosen for the character while Jude Law’s British sensibilities make the Boogie Man a bit more menacingly charming than otherwise would have been if someone else had attempted the role. Overall the characters are portrayed well, visually and vocally, despite the not so invigorating script that doesn’t give too much room for character interpretation for most of the cast.

Rise of the Guardians can definitely be described as The Avengers for the more childish mindset because it’s very similar in plot, action, and struggle. However, that would be praising the animated film a little more than it deserves simply because it resembles a carbon copy too much. What can be praised for the film is that it is visually stunning, appropriately humorous when it needs to be, but also has a solid protagonist that has relevant perception struggles and inner desires. DreamWorks has yet to overcome their devotion to simply making beautifully animated films for children who thrive off of frantic ploys of chaos instead of authentically humorous connections between characters. Of course Pixar still has the upper hand in the animation department story wise but with Rise of the Guardians it shows that perhaps DreamWorks can add a little depth and a little bit of character to their stories that aren’t the typical archetypes they usually settle on. If you thought that Rise of the Guardians wouldn’t be entertaining you’d definitely be wrong because as action and overall visual experience goes the film does deliver even if it is presented in with a superficial story that had the potential for much more.

Grade: B-

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