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

Advertisements

Snowmen


Snowmen

Can you guess which kid farted?

(2010) Family Drama (MPower) Bobby Coleman, Josh Flitter, Ray Liotta, Christopher Lloyd, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Christian Martyn, Doug E. Doug, Demi Petersen, Beverley Mitchell, Jennifer Klekas, Carolina Andrus. Directed by Robert Kirbyson

There are those who believe that the greatest tragedy in life is a life unrealized. We all yearn to make a mark, to accomplish something that will live on long after we’re gone. However, it is admittedly rare for a ten-year-old to think about such things.

Then again, there aren’t many ten-year-olds like Billy Kirkfield (Coleman). Billy loves the snow; loves to build snow forts, snow men and throw snowballs at his friends, and in Silver Lake, Colorado, there is plenty of snow to go around. Unfortunately, Billy doesn’t have a lot of friends. Many of them distanced themselves from him when Billy got cancer. His hair still hasn’t grown back from the chemotherapy, so he wears a wool cap wherever he goes.

When Howard Garvey (Thompson) moves in next door from Jamaica, it turns out to be quite a culture shock for the both of them but they instantly bond over – what else – snowballs. Howard becomes the third member of the outsiders at school, the severely put-upon and timid Lucas (Martyn) being the third. In fact, it’s somewhat fitting that Lucas’ last name is Lamb. The three bond when they discover the body of an 87 year old man in the snowdrift they’re building their snow fort in.

But this is no Stand By Me. The appearance of the dead guy forces Billy to confront his own pending mortality. It appears the cancer has reappeared – nobody is telling him straight out, but his parents have been more affectionate than usual and the hospital is calling every day. Billy knows he doesn’t have long, and he wants to leave a lasting mark before he goes. After some thought and a few less-than-successful attempts at doing something cool, Billy hits upon the idea of setting a world record for most snowmen built in 24 hours.

There are plenty of issues standing in his way, including a vicious bully (Flitter), a less than enthusiastic principal (Mitchell) and his somewhat distant Dad (Liotta), who is trying to pay off the medical bills, run his used car dealership and find some time for his son. Billy is playing his “dying kid” card like a shopaholic with a no-limit credit card, but he doesn’t know how long he has – and the odds are steep against him.

This could easily have been one of those made for Nickelodeon movies in which the kids are smarter than the adults and are plucky and resourceful without breaking a sweat. These kids are far from perfect; their greatest asset is their willingness to take their dream as far as it can take them.

Coleman reminded me a little bit of Sean Astin in The Goonies – not so much facially, but in his enthusiasm and leadership. Not that the two movies are similar – only that the two leads have a lot of similar characteristics, especially in terms of their heart and drive. Coleman also does a good job conveying the anguish he feels when his hat is torn off of him by Jason, exposing his bald head for all to see.

Liotta plays a bit of a cartoon used car salesman with outrageous commercials and a penchant for endless self-promotion, but at the end of the day he’s a good dad, wracked with guilt over what his son is forced to go through. It’s a marvelously affecting performance and reminds us that Liotta can be as good an actor as anyone in the business.

Also of note is a cameo by Christopher Lloyd as the caretaker of the cemetery where the old man whose body the boys found is buried. While the part essentially exists to get the filmmaker’s life lesson across, Lloyd handles it with dignity and surprising restraint. While we all know him for the Reverend Jim on TV and Doc Brown in the movies, he doesn’t necessarily have to overplay to be memorable.

I liked that the movie wasn’t so much a formula family movie, although there were some moments that left me groaning inside (how did Howard, who could barely stand on his skates and on the way across the pond “only” fell tweve times, suddenly turn into a speed skater near the end of the movie for example). However, it’s kind of rare for a family film these days to be thoughtful and unafraid to tackle difficult issues. Too many films in this genre dumb themselves down and go for really lowbrow laughs and to my mind, refuse to respect the intelligence of their audience. Kids may be inexperienced and lack sophistication but that doesn’t make them morons and it’s nice to see a film that doesn’t treat them that way. Here is a family movie worth seeing that wasn’t made by Pixar – now there’s a mark worth leaving behind.

REASONS TO GO: Heart-warming without being sickly sweet, with some fine performances from the young actors.

REASONS TO STAY: There are a couple of moments that nearly jump the shark.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter may be a bit much for smaller children and there is a scene near the end that might be too intense for younger kids but perfectly fine for kids ten and up – and a good jumping-off point for a dialogue about death for kids who may have experienced the loss of a loved one or a friend.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film, which was runner-up for the Audience Award at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, was based on Kirbyson’s experiences growing up in Winnipeg.

HOME OR THEATER: If you can see it in a theater, by all means do – however, chances are you’ll have to wait for a home video release.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Kinyarwanda