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On Monday night in New York, DreamWorks Animation held the first metropolitan-area screening of Rise of the Guardians, its highly anticipated awards hopeful, which previously had screened only once, on Wednesday night at the Mill Valley Film Festival in Northern California.
In attendance to offer remarks before the intimate gathering and then visit with guests at a postscreening reception were William Joyce, the Oscar-winning animator whose book series The Guardians of Childhood inspired the film; David Lindsay-Abaire, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter who adapted Joyce’s books into a script; and Peter Ramsey, the veteran storyboard artist who made his directorial debut on this film.
My initial impression: Based on the quality of this film and the relative weakness of the rest of this year’s animated feature field, it is probably the film to beat at both the Academy Awards and Golden Globe Awards. (The star-impressed Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which determines the Globes, undoubtedly will respond particularly favorably to the wattage of the film’s vocal talent.)
Guardians, a 3D film, is sort of a computer-animated version of The Avengers. Fundamentally, it is a story of good vs. evil, with a team of heroes uniting to take on one really bad guy. The good guys, in this case, are universally familiar characters, only depicted with unfamiliar personality traits: a brooding Jack Frost, voiced by Chris Pine; a badass Santa Claus, voiced by Oscar nominee Alec Baldwin; an Australian Easter Bunny, voiced by Hugh Jackman; a flirty Tooth Fairy, voiced by Isla Fisher; and the Sandman, who speaks nary a word. They come together to defend children from Pitch (voiced by Oscar nominee Jude Law), also known as “The Boogeyman,” who is the embodiment of all of their fears.
Rare is the film adapted from an acclaimed book that has the full and unreserved endorsement of the book’s author, but his one clearly does. Before the screening, Lindsay-Abaire humbly stated that his job was easy because the story was already infused with such heart and soul before he ever had anything to do with it, in response to which Joyce — who worked on the original Toy Story (1995) and won the best animated short Oscar last year for co-directing The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore — yelled out: “Bullshit! You made it better!”
After the film, Joyce told The Hollywood Reporter that he had only sold the project to DreamWorks Animation after being assured that they shared his grand regard for the characters and that he would remain involved with the creative process from start to finish. For the next 4 1/2 years, leading up to the present, he was. (Tragically, his daughter Mary Katherine, who as a child asked him a question that inspired him to concoct the story of “the guardians,” died two years ago, at just 18, from a brain tumor. Ramsey included a dedication to her at the end of the film, a gesture for which Joyce said he is very appreciative.)
It was no small coup to score Lindsay-Abaire to write this film’s script — though it’s not the first animated film on which he has worked. He told me after the film that he was hired to write Robots (2005) with a 1920s-meets-Preston Sturges tone, but, upon submitting his draft, was asked why he had written the characters as so old-fashioned, at which point he politely bowed out. Guardians, he says, was a “totally different experience.” His next project is equally unconventional: He’s penning the script for a remake of Poltergeist, to be produced* by Sam Raimi, who he reveals was originally supposed to direct the big-screen adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Rabbit Hole before a scheduling conflict got in the way. (John Cameron Mitchell wound up getting the job.)
Several people noted Monday night that this film doesn’t look like or feel like most others from DreamWorks Animation, which, to my eye, tend to be glossier and more concerned with getting consistent laughs than Guardians, which places a much greater emphasis on story development. I can only assume that this is due primarily to the sensibility of Ramsey, and perhaps also to creative suggestions from executive producer Guillermo Del Toro (the man behind the most unconventional Pan’s Labyrinth) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (who is listed as a “visual consultant” in the credits).
Finally, for my money, one of the most impressive elements of the film is the score composed by the ridiculously prolific 51-year-old Frenchman Alexandre Desplat, who has received four best original score Oscar nominations in the past five years and this year has scored no fewer than five major awards contenders in Guardians, Moonrise Kingdom, Rust & Bone, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Because an individual can be nominated for multiple works in the best original score Oscar category, as John Williams so often has been, it wouldn’t be at all shocking to see Desplat wind up with two or three this year.
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