The peculiar yet delightful hybrid may just be the best animated movie of the year.
Years ago, when writer/illustrator/filmmaker William Joyce wished to tell his kids stories about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, Jack Frost and the Tooth Fairy, he realized to his dismay that he didn't really have any stories to tell. "There wasn't a mythology," he explained in a radio interview last year. "We have a mythology for Superman and Batman and the Green Lantern and all those guys, yet the one group of fellows that we grew up believing in—actually believing in—have no unifying mythology."
So Joyce set about writing one. The result was his Guardians of Childhood series (consisting of two picture books and three novels to date), which in turn inspired the animated film Rise of the Guardians. Given that the movie was precipitated, essentially, by the question Why do we know more about Green Lantern than the Easter Bunny?, it's little coincidence that it takes the form of a children's fable reimagined as a superhero flick. The surprise, rather, is that this peculiar but delightful hybrid just may be the best animated offering of the year.
Here we are introduced to Santa as a massive Slav, his Popeye-scale forearms tattooed, Russian-mob-style, "Naughty" and "Nice." (The voice, served up with goodly portions of ham and relish, is by Alec Baldwin.) Joining St. Nick are Bunnymund (Hugh Jackman), an oversized rabbit from Down Under with a penchant for pastel eggs; Tooth (Isla Fisher) and her army of humming-bird-ish dental retrievers; and the Sandman, a doughy yet doughty keeper of dreams, silent as Harpo Marx.
Following an aurora-borealic summons, the four gather at Santa's polar citadel—it's hard to imagine that the Fortress of Solitude echoes are unintentional—where he reminds them, "It is our job to watch over the children of the world and keep them safe." As he speaks, his fellow Guardians survey a huge, spinning globe that pinpoints every one of their young charges (yes, this is Santa's Situation Room); across it, a wave of darkness is spreading.
This would be the shadow cast by diabolical fear-god Pitch, known to kids everywhere as the Boogeyman and to you and me as Jude Law. After a long absence he has returned to haunt the Earth's children in their slumbers, transmuting the gold-dust-unicorn dreams supplied by the Sandman into snarling hell-horse nightmares.
Clearly, reinforcements are called for, and one is quickly summoned in the form of Jack Frost (Chris Pine), a teenager frozen in time and longstanding Naughty-lister who is chosen by the Man in the Moon to become the newest Guardian. Santa's elves blare celebratory bugles, his yeti (didn't know about them, did you?) twirl torches like majorettes, and all the customary ceremonies are observed. And then they're off, these newly assembled heroes. The fate of Easter—what if the egg hunt finds itself without prey?—lies in the balance.
As is no doubt apparent, there's more than a whiff of The Avengers to the entire undertaking. Pitch's toffee-nosed inflections and air of needy malevolence—won't someone please play attention to him—bear a notable resemblance to Loki's Asgardian envy, and bad-boy Jack Frost flashes more than a hint of that Tony Stark spark. It can hardly escape notice that Bunnymund is yet another overgrown rodent voiced by the man behind Marvel-universe colleague Wolverine. And Santa? Well, if Thor spent a bit of time hanging out with dockworkers in Murmansk, grew out his beard, and put on a couple of pounds.... I'm just saying.
If all of this makes Rise of the Guardians sound rather silly, well it is. (Obviously.) But while there are times when the plot is packed rather more densely than is strictly speaking necessary, there are moments of genuine magic scattered throughout the script—by Pulitzer-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire—as when Santa uses nesting dolls to illustrate the "wonder" at his core, or Jack discovers how it is that he came to be Jack Frost. First-time director Peter Ramsay keeps the plot-lines taut, and Baldwin and Law stand out amid the strong vocal cast.
But what ultimately elevates the film above the ordinary is its extravagant visual imagination—a quality perhaps to be expected given the participation, in addition to Joyce, of executive producer Guillermo del Toro and "visual consultant" Roger Deakins. There are marvels around every corner: from the lavish moustaches of the yuletide yeti to Pitch's Dementor-like steeds, trailing tendrils of fear; from Bunnymund's Wonka-worthy Easter warren to the lazily ambling, dream-world apatosaurs; from the Sandman cracking his long, nebular whips to Santa cloud-surfing his sleigh, slashing through bad dreams with a cutlass in each meaty fist. It's enough to inspire a holiday carol.