For anyone who ever pined for a children’s version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Dreamworks has answered your odd prayer with Rise of the Guardians, an adaptation of an ongoing book series by Rolie Polie Olie creator and Academy Award-winning author/animator William Joyce, whose WikiPedia entry names a surprising number of other works in which he had a hand.
I don’t know how closely the movie hews to the books’ original premise, but the big-screen version is an all-star supergroup featuring the world’s most popular public-domain holiday icons — Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman (not, alas, the Neil Gaiman version), and impudent new recruit Jack Frost. Under the guiding light of the mysterious Man in the Moon, Our Heroes are tasked with preserving the precious beliefs of children worldwide who lend each icon their powers and make their respective holidays possible. The foe that unites them is the Boogeyman, who plots to dispel all that belief, render the Guardians moot, and divert the world’s thoughts unto himself so that he might rule with terror and nightmares. Presumably this radical shift in the status quo would leave the Gregorian calendar depressingly blank except for Halloween and Tax Day.
One conversation in the film hints that other holiday mascots exist in this milieu, including the Leprechaun and the Groundhog. I’d considered brainstorming my own list of future Guardians I’d like to see, but Joyce’s Guardians of Childhood books are still in progress and may yet shine their spotlight on the likes of Cupid, Uncle Sam, a pumpkin-headed man, and some saccharine, atrophied eyesore who upholds the tenets of Sweetest Day for its five or ten observers.
(For a new villain, I would suggest Tom Turkey, the only Guardian who leads his own people to the slaughter every year just so humans will continue to believe in him. Knowing Hollywood’s reticence for producing traumatic kiddie films, I expect Tom would be usurped in his Thanksgiving representation by the much more heroic Indian Squanto.)
The hyperkinetic visuals of the 2-D version sent exactly one message: “3-D high-speed chase scenes are awesome!” Approximately eighty of the film’s ninety-seven minutes are lived out in a restless state of running, racing, zooming, whooshing, flying, darting, speeding, or twirling, like a clipfest of Scorsese tracking shots stuck on fast-forward. Perhaps the sensation of a nonstop coaster ride was the desired effect meant as a visual treat for the privileged thrill-seekers who gleefully pay extra for the 3-D upcharge. As a stubborn 2-D adherent, all I know is I saw hints of a lot of potentially admirable images onscreen, but couldn’t make out most of them because they wouldn’t stand still. I would’ve loved a chance to examine the craft and technique that were surely applied to character and set designs, but focusing on any one image was impossible for long stretches. When visiting an art gallery, appreciating each piece is easier if you don’t insist on sprinting past them all.
When the action pauses and the characters are allowed to emote and interact, a collection of morals saunter along on separate tracks, often at cross purposes: (1) belief is a powerful thing; (2) our past is a key part of why we are who we are; (3) sometimes deep fear can be quelled with firm disbelief; (4) children are quitters; (5) snowball fights cure all and never hurt anyone; and (6) elves are stupider than we think. The humorous parts work in general, especially the stupid elf gags. The vocal performances are as meaningful as they need to be, especially Chris Pine as the frustrated Frost, Alec Baldwin as the Russian toymaker, and Jude Law as the greyscale menace who wants to hoard all the idolatrous glory for himself. Toward the end, though, moralizing takes a backseat to holiday blockbuster action finale showdown that left me with a little hollow feeling and fueled my irked suspicion that Guardians was designed with only 3-D in mind.
Viewers who make the mistake of leaving the theater as soon as the cast credits roll missed a short epilogue, described in the next paragraph after this courtesy spoiler notice:
At a Tuesday night showing with fifteen people, my son and I were the only ones who stuck around long enough to see a mid-credit montage in which the neighborhood kids, now half-asleep after staying up all night to fight with the Guardians and then hang out at their post-war party, are each surreptitiously returned to their beds by various elves, baby tooth fairies, walking eggs, and Yeti with amusing slapstick results. This was an interesting answer to the question, “In all those old movies that end with a cheesy party scene, what happens after the cheesy party?” For anyone who was worried that any of the children would be punished by their parents for sneaking out past curfew, rest assured no such consequences were suffered, thanks to all those conspiratorial little servants.
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UPDATED 8/11/2014: If you’re here looking for more information about other movies whose titles contain the word “Guardians”, might I direct you to one of the following MCC entries? Enjoy!