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A very odd assortment of mythical childhood figures, some of them afflicted with severe emotional insecurities and inferiority complexes, are thrown together as an unlikely set of action heroes in Rise of the Guardians, an attractively designed but overly busy and derivative mishmash of kid-friendly elements.
A sort of Justice League or Avengers equivalent made up of the fearsome team of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman and Jack Frost, this final DreamWorks Animation production set to be distributed by Paramount will play in a predictably agreeable and profitable fashion to small fry but will skew young despite the presence of an excellent voice cast. The world premiere took place Oct. 10 at the Mill Valley Film Festival in advance of the Nov. 21 commercial bow.
Based on the book series Guardians of Childhood by William Joyce, as well as on the author’s short film The Man in the Moon, the script by David Lindsay-Abaire (Robots, Rabbit Hole) plays fast and loose with these legendary fixtures of childhood, attaching to them all sorts of neuroses, feelings of inadequacy and the sense, or threat, of being ignored. Some might find this tack delightfully mischievous, but it’s just as easy to reject as ridiculous the notion that Jack Frost — a free spirit very much like Peter Pan who can fly around anywhere he wants — suffers from an emotional trauma he suffered hundreds of years earlier.
Perhaps the most readily amusing of the gang is Santa, or, as he is more geographically named here, North. A muscular powerhouse rather than a fatso, North has heavily tatted forearms and, as wonderfully voiced by Alec Baldwin, sports a distinctive Russian accent not inappropriate to the proximity of that country to his palatial mountainside workshop. Also gathering here are the rangy and rascally E. Aster Bunnymund (an excellent Hugh Jackman), the hummingbird-like Tooth (or Tooth Fairy, delightfully rendered by Isla Fisher), the mute and tubby spinner of gold Sandman and, ultimately, Jack (a fine Chris Pine), who has wandered the globe alone for centuries and feels woefully unrecognized compared to the others because he has no special day or occasion to make an imprint on the lives of children.
All the same, Jack is hard-pressed by North to join in the battle against Pitch (as in pitch black), a diabolical figure (plausibly acted by Jude Law) who, after a long absence, has returned to throw Earth into darkness and provide much-needed nightmares to kids everywhere. As with Jack, Pitch’s re-emergence feels arbitrary and generic, while the tall, sneering and stubby-toothed figure bears far too close a resemblance to Harry Potter‘s Voldemort, as do his minions, black steeds that disintegrate into fragments and flash through the sky almost identically to Death Eaters. So while Jack tries to sort out his issues of neglect (kids in small-town America don’t even notice him) and struggles over whether or not to join the others, the battle against the lord of the night commences.
Director Peter Ramsey, a longtime storyboard artist making his feature directorial debut after beginning with the 2009 telefilm Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins From Outer Space, never misses a chance to throw in one more roller-coaster-like visual ride to pump up the 3D experience. But the characters and settings are attractively designed, and the vocal performances have real color and a sense of fun that gently undercuts the treacly sincerity of certain obligatory kid-pandering moments.
Composer Alexandre Desplat really gets a workout here, dextrously blanketing the film with ever-changing tempos and motifs to suit the moment and propel the action. At least 10 percent of the 97-minute running time is devoted to the end credits.
Venue: Mill Valley Film Festival
Opens: Wednesday, Nov. 21 (Paramount)
Production: DreamWorks Animation SKG
Voice cast: Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Jude Law, Isla Fisher, Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo
Director: Peter Ramsey
Screenwriter: David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the Guardians of Childhood book series by William Joyce and The Man in the Moon, a Reel FX short film directed by William Joyce
Producers: Christina Steinberg, Nancy Bernstein
Executive producers: William Joyce, Guillermo del Toro, Michael Siegel
Production designer: Patrick Marc Hanenberger
Visual effects supervisor: David Prescott
Editor: Joyce Arrastia
Visual consultant: Roger Deakins
PG rating, 97 minutes
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