(Sight & Sound, BFI)
Jack Frost is an ageless boy who delights in freezing the world at winter, but is frustrated that no ordinary people can see him. He’s bundled off to the North Pole to meet the Guardians, protectors of children: Father Christmas, the Sandman, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny (who dislikes Jack). Jack is told he must become a new Guardian and help defeat the malevolent Pitch, who aims to rule the world with his nightmares…
Rise of the Guardians, the latest computer-animated spectacle from the DreamWorks studio, is a cartoon many children will love for the same reasons that grown-ups may be less enthused. The story is a mix of Peter Pan and Avengers Assemble. Lonely magic boy Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine) is inducted into a hero team consisting of feisty, action-ready versions of Father Christmas, the Sandman, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, all fighting a nightmare-making boogeyman bully voiced by Jude Law. The film’s tone is set by its version of Saint Nick sporting “Naughty” and “Nice” tattoos on his muscled arms, while the Easter Bunny is a scowling six-foot Australian brusier with Hugh Jackman’s voice.
Directed by Peter Ramsey (who moves up from directing a TV spinoff from DreamWorks’ Monsters Vs. Aliens, 2009), the film is dominated by whizzy, whirling spectacle that doesn’t really relent. There’s always another giant fantasy landscape or flying battle over clouds or rooftops. Many adults may agree with the sentiments of Brad Bird, who directed the Oscar-winning superhero cartoon The Incredibles (2004), but who still criticised cartoon films’ slide into “manic jabbering and quick cutting” in place of deep emotion. You’ll look in vain for depth in Rise of the Guardians. The story is a mash-up of fantasy and comic-book tropes, and Jack’s “Who am I?” journey was travelled better by the ursine hero of Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda films.
Guardians is more convincing as a feast for the eyes, if you have a taste for epic CGI worlds full of flying toys, critter armies and terrible heights and depths. The critters are the best, especially Father Christmas’s regiments of grumpy yetis and gibbering elves (though the elves feel very like the show-stealing minions in the cartoon Despicable Me, 2010). The invention’s undeniable – there’s a visit to the Easter Bunny’s lush domain of walking eggs, framed through the eyes of a delighted little girl, while the Sandman is a mute, shy Yoda, conjuring up golden dolphins and brontosauri from fairy dust.
Jude Law makes a silver-tongued, shadow-loving villain, broadly recalling Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in recent Marvel superhero films, though the script could have gone deeper with his affinity with Jack – both hero and villain are outcasts, desperate to be visible to the world. Law’s villain is no more silly or childish than many adversaries in superhero films; however, the script doesn’t have that genre’s teen-friendly sass, and the fairy-tale premise may limit the audience. Only one of the five heroes is female (Isla Fisher’s fluttering Tooth Fairy), and she’s not much more interesting than the token females in many fantasy battle teams. It’s a shame, given that DreamWorks has produced increasingly interesting heroines in its recent cartoons, well ahead of Pixar’s Brave.
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