Rise of the Guardians


Rise of the Guardians

Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream…

(2012) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Alec Baldwin, Chris Pine, Isla Fisher, Hugh Jackman, Jude Law, Dakota Goyo, Khamani Griffin, Kamil McFadden, Dominique Grund, Georgie Grieve, Emily Nordwind, Jacob Bertrand, Olivia Mattingly, April Lawrence. Directed by Peter Ramsey

 

Certain figures hold a kind of reverence in all of our childhoods; the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and of course Santa Claus. They are symbols of various aspects of our youth and remind us that who we are now is informed by who we were then. These figures are venerated because of their association with children. They are protectors of their innocence. They are guardians.

Jack Frost (Pine) is a mischievous sort, the sort who brings snow and ice to cold climates and provides children everywhere with snow days. When you’re hit in the face with a stray snowball that nobody can remember throwing, he’s likely to be the culprit. Nobody can see him, after all because nobody really believes in him. This depresses him somewhat.

But he has been chosen to be the newest Guardian by the enigmatic Man in the Moon (who never speaks). The current Guardians – Santa Claus (Baldwin), a buff Russian accented behemoth who answers to North and carries swords as well as candy canes, The Easter Bunny (Jackman) who speaks with an Australian lilt, tosses boomerangs and exploding eggs in battle and travels by magical portals through the underground; the Sandman, a pint-sized sleepy sort who visualizes his thoughts through sand and uses sandy whips to create creams, and the Tooth Fairy (Fisher) who commands an army of little hummingbird-like fairies that collect teeth in which childhood memories are stored – are aware that one of their own, the Boogie Man who also is known as Pitch (Law) who has spent centuries preparing for his own moment – to use the Sandman’s ability to create good dreams and perverting it to cause nightmares and fear. And as the kids of the world lose faith in their Guardians, the Guardians begin to disappear and lose their powers.

The lynchpin is Jack Frost, but he may not be up to the task. How can someone nobody believes in become a hero?

I kind of like the concept here, although I do admit that it likely posed all sorts of problems not only for the filmmaker but for William Joyce, the author of the children’s books that this movie was (loosely) based on. Creating characters that not only contain the traits that kids know and love about these legends but also are believable as a superhero team is a bit of a tricky prospect.

It doesn’t always work. Think of Super Friends with better animation, a reference which probably flies over the head of most kids whom this is aimed at and that’s just as well. The target audience has barely lived long enough to be in kindergarten.

There is plenty of color here and some truly magical moments, most of which have to do with visiting the homes of these characters. Santa’s workshop, for example, is staffed by Yeti toymakers (who look like the lovechildren of Bigfoot and Wilford Brimley) and elves who might remind some of the Minions of Despicable Me. The Easter Bunny’s warren has Pacific Island-looking stone heads, trees that dispense little eggs with legs that walk through a Willy Wonka-looking contraption that paints them. The Tooth Fairy’s castle is a cross between a Disney princess abode, a dentist’s office and Hogwarts’ Castle.

I’m not sure why Baldwin picked a Russian/Slavic accent for Santa – if he wanted to be a bit more accurate he might have gone Germanic with it but I suppose it might be a bit too easy to characterize Santa as a Nazi had he done that. In fact, most of the vocal work is pretty adequate and I do like some of the characterizations (like the flirtatious Tooth Fairy who has a thing for Jack’s teeth). The Easter Bunny is a bit impatient and trades barbs with Jack who is on the Bunny’s poo list for causing a blizzard a few Easters back.

Da Queen liked this a lot better than I did. She commented afterwards on the messages of working as a team, putting the greater good ahead of your own personal needs and the need for sacrifice – and it’s rare I admit that you see that sort of pointing towards selflessness in modern animated features which more often stress being true to yourself than being true to the world.

Still, I had trouble with the rather predictable story and it’s overuse of Jack’s angst as a plot point. There were also several superhero poses that were a bit incongruous – you know, the crouch with arms outstretched, staffs and swords pointed in aggressive poses. I suppose that the message that problems need to be solved with violence is also kind of ingrained in this – no attempt is ever made to negotiate with Pitch and his own issues, which get revealed late in the film, seem to be made light of because, by nature, Pitch is Bad which means that some people are naturally Bad and should be dealt with violently which I kind of had issues with. Call me a bleeding heart liberal if you will.

Even so this is solid entertainment that small kids will adore and their parents won’t feel is a burden for them to watch with their progeny. Be advised that although Santa is being marketed as a central character (which he is), this isn’t strictly speaking a Christmas movie so if you’re expecting one, you might leave disappointed.

REASONS TO GO: Kind of fun to see all those characters together. Visually inventive.

REASONS TO STAY: Story is much too predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes and some of the action sequences might be a little scary for the wee ones, especially if they’re impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the last DreamWorks Animation film to be distributed by Paramount. The company has signed a new contract with 20th Century Fox that begins in 2013.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/25/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100. The reviews are pretty decent.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Incredibles

EASTER LOVERS: .Part of the film takes place during the spring holiday, and we get a nice look at the Easter Bunny’s castle.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Jolene

The Santa Clause


The Santa Clause
You’d better not cry…

(1994) Family (Disney) Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Wendy Crewson, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz, Larry Brandenburg, Mary Gross, Paige Tamada, Peter Boyle, Judith Scott, Jayne Eastwood, Melissa King, Bradley Wentworth, Steve Vinovich. Directed by John Pasquin

 

Belief is a powerful thing. There are those among us who must have the evidence of the senses to believe in something – seeing is believing, after all. It also must be said that one of the most lovely thing about children is their ability to believe whole-heartedly in something without evidence – their innocence augments their faith.

Scott Calvin (Allen) is an executive at a toy company. He is divorced and a bit estranged from his son Charlie (Lloyd). His ex-wife Laura (Crewson) has since re-married to a psychiatrist named Dr. Neil Miler (Reinhold) who is a pretty decent fellow.

Charlie is staying over at Scott’s house for Christmas Eve, with the intention of sending him back to his mom’s for the big day itself. Charlie is beginning to have doubts about the existence of Santa Clause whom Scott tries to re-assure him is real but Scott really doesn’t believe himself so the attempt falls flat. Later that night, they are awakened by a commotion on the roof. When they go out to investigate, Scott startles a man dressed in red on his roof, who then falls to the ground and apparently breaks his neck. The man disappears mysteriously, but when Scott investigates he finds a business card in the pocket of the suit which says that someone needs to put on the suit and that the reindeer would then know what to do.

In order to please Charlie, Scott puts on the suit and ascends to the roof where to his astonishment find eight reindeer and a sleigh. The two of them get into the sleigh and start delivering toys from house to house, with Scott making a rather poor Santa although he is able to magically fit down chimneys or for homes without fireplaces, dryer vents and radiator vents.

The last stop is the North Pole where Scott is greeted by a rather officious elf named Bernard (Krumholtz) who informs Scott that by donning the suit he has activated the Santa Clause which requires him to become Santa. He has until Thanksgiving of the following year to wrap up his affairs, after which he’ll become Santa full time. Charlie is given a snow globe as a gift. The two go to sleep in the North Pole but wake up back at Scott’s house. Scott assumes it was just a crazy dream.

Strange things begin to happen to Scott. He begins to develop an insatiable desire for cookies and hot chocolate and begins to put on an embarrassing amount of weight. He starts growing a long beard which no matter how he tries to shave it off re-appears instantly. His hair turns white. He has an uncanny knack of knowing who is naughty and nice. Kids, unconsciously knowing he’s Santa begin giving him lists of gifts they want.

Neil and Laura, seeing the extent of Scott’s Santa obsession and of Charlie’s increasing insistence that his father is the Santa Claus, become concerned with Charlie’s well-being and seek to terminate Scott’s visitation rights. The petition turns out to be successful and Scott, now determined to be a better father, is devastated.

The events create doubt in Scott that he is the true Santa Clause but while visiting Charlie on Thanksgiving, Charlie’s pleas and faith reawaken the magic and Bernard with Charlie’s help whisk Scott away to the North Pole. Charlie, wanting to be with his father, goes along. Laura and Neil are certain that Charlie has been kidnapped against his will and a police investigation is launched, led by Detective Nunzio (Brandenburg). When Scott tries to deliver presents to Neil’s house on Christmas Eve, Scott is arrested. Can Christmas be saved?

At the time this film was made, Allen was best known for his “Home Improvement” hit series which was then in its third year. The movie increased his star power and led to his casting as Buzz Lightyear shortly thereafter. Two additional Santa Clause movies were also made in the succeeding years.

The movie is inventive and charming and a bit sticky sweet in places. It harkens back to the heyday of Disney live action family movies such as The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes, Darby O’Gill and the Little People and The Three Lives of Tomasina. The blend of magic and physics makes this entertaining for adults as well as kids and the movie never forgets that while its target audience is children that their parents are going to have to be entertained as well.

Allen is at his best here and would have a solid career in family films for the Mouse House following this. He brings the right mix of cynicism and warm-heartedness to the role and the transformation of Scott as a career-oriented man to a devoted father is believable. The chemistry between him and Lloyd as his son Charlie seems genuine.

While the North Pole operation isn’t as impressive as shown in later films like The Polar Express and Fred Claus it was nifty at the time it was released and still is grand enough to get oohs and aahs from the younger set.

There are no villains in this movie – Neil and Laura act out of genuine concern for Charlie and that’s kind of refreshing. Some Scrooge-like critics grumbled about the custody issues bogging down the plot but quite frankly I disagree. The movie is about the difficulties created by Scott becoming Santa and in that sense the reaction of other adults to Scott’s transformation seems logical and believable to me. Even though there is a certain magic in the North Pole scenes, Scott’s coping with his physical transformation are for me the best scenes in the movie.

This is certainly not the best Christmas movie ever made but it has become a minor holiday classic. It is clever, good fun and essentially harmless. It could have used a little more edge and Santa breaking his neck early on might scar the more sensitive kids for life but other than that this is charming holiday viewing and definitely a movie I don’t mind seeing again and again.

WHY RENT THIS: Clever and heartwarming in places, a worthy addition to Disney’s live action family film tradition. Allen proves he has big screen star power here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little sticky-sweet in places. Somewhat dated at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few moments of crude humor but not so crude that you wouldn’t want your kids to watch.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was originally written with Bill Murray in mind, but he passed. Fellow SNL alumni Chevy Chase was also offered the part but had to decline due to scheduling conflicts. Disney had a strict policy of not hiring ex-cons, but an exception was made in his case for the “Home Improvement” television show which was produced by Disney’s Touchstone arm and Allen went on to make movies not only in the Santa Clause franchise but several other family films as well the Toy Story series.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The special edition DVD includes a feature hosted by Wolfgang Puck as he shows you how to make some of Santa’s favorite snacks, and there’s is also an interactive game called “Santa’s Helper.”

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $189.8M on a $22M production budget; the movie was a franchise-establishing blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill concludes!

Arthur Christmas


Arthur Christmas
Who knew that Santa Claus was actually a South American dictator?

(2011) Animated Feature (Columbia) Starring the voices of James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen, Laura Linney, Eva Longoria, Michael Palin, Robby Coltane, Joan Cusack, Jane Horrocks, Andy Serkis, Marc Wootton, Dominic West. Directed by Sarah Smith and Barry Cook

 

One of the most common questions children have about the legend of Santa Claus is how does he deliver so many presents in a single night (I don’t remember that being much of an issue when I was growing up – we just took it for granted that he did it and moved on). These days with the world population increasing and the demand for presents soaring it has become quite an operation indeed.

In fact, Santa (Broadbent) is more of a figurehead these days. The North Pole is a subterranean base that doesn’t appear on Google Earth. His gift-delivering operation is run with military precision by his eldest son Steve (Laurie) who fully expects that dear old dad will be passing along the job to him at the successful conclusion of Christmas this year.

In fact, the job has been in the same family for many generations. Grandsanta (Nighy) delivered the presents in the old sleigh with the reindeer but Steve has modernized, utilizing an incredible jet the size of a fleet of battleships using advanced stealth technology to stay off of the radar. As befuddled as Santa is, Grandsanta is as curmudgeonly, having felt left behind.

Arthur (McAvoy) is Santa’s younger son, a gentle soul who is a bit of a screw up. He has been given the relatively harmless position of handling the Letter Response Division. He tends to have more of the Christmas spirit in his heart which Steve looks at as a liability. Actually going out into the field and delivering presents terrifies Arthur.

When it’s discovered that one child’s present remained undelivered the reaction of Steve and Santa is a colossal “Ho-hum” which is a mighty change from “Ho ho ho!” One child left behind is considered acceptable collateral damage. However, Arthur doesn’t see it that way. To him, if one child isn’t considered special, than nobody can be. Despite his trepidations, he decides to see to the delivery himself and Grandsanta decides to come along for the ride, bringing the old sleigh out of mothballs. Grandsanta’s motivation is more to show up his progeny, however.

This is the first feature to be released from Aardman Animation since Flushed Away back in 2006 (they also have the feature Pirates! Band of Misfits slated for release in early 2012) and quite frankly, this isn’t up to the standards of the folks that brought us Wallace and Gromit. There’s plenty of imagination all right and some clever, sly humor that the studio is known for but not enough of the latter to really stand out like their other films did.

The squabbling Santas are a prime example. I get the feeling that the filmmakers were lampooning the commercialization of Christmas, but making the two elder Claus statesmen out to be doddering old fools or scheming old fools kind of violates their own mythology to a certain extent. The whole portrayal makes me wonder if the Santa Claus family isn’t a little bit guilty of inbreeding.

The vocal performances are dead on; Laurie, best known for his stint on ”House” plays Steve as a supercilious British Army officer, very regimented and expecting life to run like clockwork like it does in the Army when he was in Indja don’t you know. Nighy alternates between reminiscing about the good old days and bitching about the modern days like many grandsires do.

McAvoy is a bit bland as Arthur but then again Arthur isn’t really drawn all that well as a character. He is a bit of a bumbler and is good-hearted but has little to no self-confidence. His most identifiable characteristic is his nearly obsessive love for all things Christmas. We get that he has a good heart and he is a bit of a klutz but little more beyond that. Perhaps the writers didn’t think the kids in the audience care much about that.

The North Pole base and Santa’s S-1 jet are both marvelously done, as well as the armies of elves who make things happen. The backgrounds and artwork are amazing, and keeping with Aardman tradition have a bit of the Claymation look to them (Aardman’s earliest shorts and films were done with stop-motion Claymation). One thing about Aardman; you can always instantly tell their films apart from other studios.

I may be sounding a bit harsh on the movie, but this is a studio I hold to higher standards than most. In all honesty this is a pretty decent Christmas movie, but I had hoped for something that would be more of a perennial from a studio with as much imagination as this one has had over the years. It should do well enough to keep the kids entertained and it won’t have the adults squirming in their seats, but the wit is lacking and the sense of wonder fleeting. Not quite a lump of coal but not the present I was looking for.

REASONS TO GO: Has much of the wonderfully quirky Aardman sense of humor. Some of the North Pole and Santa’s spaceship scenes are spectacular.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit whiny in spots.

FAMILY VALUES: This got a PG rating for “mild rude humor” but in all actuality this is perfectly suitable for all members of the family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer Peter Baynham’s last film was Arthur making this the second consecutive film he’s written that contains the word “Arthur” in the title.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely a theatrical experience.

FINAL RATING; 6/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill continues!