Film Review: Rise of the Guardians

Gorgeously animated children's film about the mythical guardians of childhood just misses being magical.

All the moving parts fit just right in the computer-animated children's feature Rise of the Guardians: Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lindsay-Abaire has followed all the directions to assemble a kid-lit plot about coming of age by finding one's purpose; children's-book royalty William Joyce has supplied the beautifully crafted pieces; Peter Ramsey, in his feature directorial debut, harnesses a team that paints and polishes it all exquisitely; and a voice cast that could do King Lear brings beloved childhood fantasies to vivid and original life. Kids all over will take to this like a toy on Christmas morning. So why am I left with the feeling that my own inner child would rather play with the box it came in?

Rise of the Guardians, which takes place in the present day, a couple hundred years ahead of the time frame of the trio of children's books that inspired it, looks great and has several funny moments and…and…well, I can feel myself forcing it. I want to love this film. I want to love a comically gruff, tough, tattooed Santa Claus, here named North (Alec Baldwin), who teams with a six-foot-tall "Crocodile" Dundee of an Easter Bunny, called Bunnymund (Hugh Jackman); the Tooth Fairy, named Tooth, voiced adorably by the adorable Isla Fisher; and the silent, childlike guru Sandy, the Sandman. Jude Law, voicing Pitch Black, the embodiment of childhood fear, is the best British-accented bad guy in an animated film since Jeremy Irons' Scar in The Lion King. And there's nothing wrong with Chris Pine as an unfortunately all-too-familiar callow, disaffected yet ultimately goodhearted spirit of winter, Jack Frost, despite the fact that the character looks like a young Corey Feldman.

What it may come down to is an uncomfortable feeling that the plot—which hinges on children's belief being essential in keeping these avatars whole and visible—is kind of a crock. Aside from the fact that they show themselves to some small-town kids in the climax—which solves the whole problem and could have been done anytime—it misses the whole point of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, et al.: that their power lies in that they're not real, and that children becoming aware of this for themselves is one of the first ways that kids realize they can think for themselves. It's a step in growing up. The movie's forceful insistence on children's belief in these characters feels misguided in a way that most screen treatments of Santa etc. don't. Belief generally isn’t the critical point—the adventures take place regardless of children's belief. Put it this way: We can enjoy the adventures of Marvel's Thor without any insistence we believe in Norse gods.

Guardians also suffers from a physical vagueness that makes the battle scenes unclear and confounding. There seems no consistency to how these avatars are affected by the physical world and by Pitch's energy blasts. There appear to be no in-universe rules as to what can and can't hurt them, what they can or can't do, or what their weaknesses and limitations are—so when one character mentally fixes his magical device out of the blue or another one makes a "surprise" third-act return, it's all deus to the ex machina.

Certainly, such considerations matter more to adults than to kids. But I like to think that children can spot weaknesses in storytelling, which is why the best children's literature, films and TV shows are those that grownups can appreciate as well. I feel like the Grinch for saying so, but Rise of the Guardians is no How the Grinch Stole Christmas—the TV special. It's way better than the stupid live-action movie.