Friday, December 07, 2012

A holiday film 'rises' to the occasion

Every holiday season there is at least one new Christmas-themed family movie released into theaters. Lately, these films tend to have a hip or revisionist take on the Santa Claus mythology. This year is no different with "The Rise of Guardians" presenting Santa as a member of an Avengers-esque super group of mythic childhood figures.

Based on a series of books by William Joyce, "Guardians" unites Santa (Alec Baldwin, sporting a fantastic Russian accent), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman, not holding back his natural Australian accent), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the Sandman and, the rookie of the team, Jack Frost (Chris Pine) as guardians of childhood innocence.

Their adversary is the Bogeyman, Pitch Black (Jude Law), who has long been forgotten and is eager to return with a reign of fear and nightmares. Law gives an appropriately sinister vocal performance and the character design is genuinely creepy without being too terrifying for younger viewers.

The mischievous and fun loving Jack is the main character of the story. He has no recollection of his past before gaining his powers over ice and wind and can only be seen by other magical beings. This leaves him feeling lost and confused. He reluctantly joins the team after the promise that they'll help him regain his memories.

This is all pretty standard good versus evil stuff, but it is the telling and the characterizations that make "Rise of the Guardians" unexpectedly good and rather special. The film has a good pedigree including a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, whose plays such as "The Rabbit Hole" and "Kimberly Akimbo" blend warm humor with a searing emotional honesty.

Lindsay-Abaire brings surprising emotional weight to the proceedings, particularly to Jack's origins. The film is light and funny, but Lindsay-Abaire isn't afraid to be dark and deal with heavy emotions.

Most children's films have a theme that you should believe in yourself. While that's present in "Guardians," the message also goes a bit deeper. There's an important idea that not only is it necessary to believe in yourself, but to have others believe in you, too. One of the film's most powerful moments is when Jack is finally seen, both literally and figuratively, for the first time.

The other key name attached to the film is producer Guillermo del Toro, the visionary and imaginative filmmaker of such films as "Pan's Labyrinth." While he didn't direct the film, his visual stamp can be seen throughout much of the vivid designs of the characters and settings.

The film is visually rather stunning and manages to feel unique in a market saturated by computer animation. Sandman and his sand, in particular, stand out. Sandy, as he is nicknamed, can't speak, so his ever shifting sand does the speaking for him. On the surface he is sweet and unassuming, but his sand makes him a formidable fighter. It is an inspired variation of the Sandman character.

In fact, all of the characters are clever and creative versions of these well known figures. Santa, with his Russian accent, is a tough brawler and handy with a sword, but still retains his good cheer and sense of wonder. Baldwin has a speech about the core essence of Santa that is sweet and touching.

Jackman's Easter Bunny has a sassy attitude and snarky wit and nicely butts heads with Pine's Jack. There's a development with the Easter Bunny late in the tale that is both hilarious and adorable.

The Tooth Fairy, who has an army of hummingbird helper fairies, is underdeveloped, but nicely voiced by Fisher.

In the supporting characters category, it is revealed that it isn't the elves that make Santa's toys, but a team of yetis. This is an inspired idea and the yetis get some of the film's biggest laughs. On the other hand, the elves, which are portrayed as dimwits, come off like cheap knock offs of the minions from "Despicable Me."

"Rise of the Guardians" is more than just another Christmas movie. It is a smart, funny, heartfelt and an entirely engaging film that should appeal to both kids and adults alike.

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