Thursday, December 13, 2012

Rise of the Guardians review

For a good many years I have found computer animated movies to be consistently solid and entertaining. Certainly there have been exceptions, examples that I didn't particularly care for or occasionally just disliked, but these are rare. In fact, I'd say more animated movies have far surpassed my expectations than those that have disappointed me.

Why is this? Is it just that they stick so solidly to a limited formula that, while not complex, never grows old? Is it that the animated film industry is full to the brim with experienced and skilled professionals who have a passion for what they create? Could it be that the money men give the creators more freedom to create what they want than in the rest of the industry? Perhaps it's the opposite; maybe the people who control the purse strings know what works and won't allow the creators to deviate from that mold? I have no idea whatsoever. All I know is, Rise of the Guardians is brilliant.

I mean, this movie doesn't put a foot wrong. It's visually splendid, imaginative, funny and exciting. The story has familiar elements - Terry Pratchet's Hogfather comes to mind - but those elements fit perfectly given the subject matter, and I'm guessing most children won't have encountered them before. It doesn't step beyond the scope of a children's movie the way some do, but that almost makes it more daring in my book; it doesn't feel the need to try to accommodate adults, no little nods and winks in our direction, this movie is for children and it doesn't feel the need to apologise for that. I'm thirty years old and I loved it. If you watch it and don't enjoy it then I'm sorry, but I pity you.

The characters are all imaginative and likeable - the movie has it's own take on each of these fairy tale figures, but they remain recognisable, and somehow the way each one acts just feels right. Santa is loud and jolly, but there's an unexpected sense of danger there; he's no-one's fool, and you wouldn't want to get on his bad side. The Tooth Fairies resemble humming birds, fast and industrious, but energetic and excitable, and oh so colourful. The Easter Bunny talks tough and is always ready for a fight, but without the exaggerated stubborn streak that such characters often display. The Sandman might not talk, but that doesn't stop him from brimming with personality.

And what of our protagonist, Jack Frost? He's free-spirited and mischievous, but very human and relatable. He may be a "reluctant hero", but he's a reluctant hero done right. He doesn't sulk and throw hissy fits about this not being his fight, rather he simply questions whether this is his place - and only briefly at first, which anyone would do when being asked to accept the rather daunting responsibility of safeguarding all the children in the world. That's not to say that he jumps right in with both feet and no reservations; ironically this children's animation is far more realistic than many films in that respect, and his own personal struggle with his place in the world is balanced against the rest of the narrative.

Speaking of the narrative, this movie has something that most animated films don't. I've mentioned this before when I talked about that other Guardians movie; a genuine battle between Good and Evil. Just as those Guardians did, these ones are fighting a war, and there's times when things really don't look good for our heroes, when evil really does look unstoppable and it's hard to believe there could be a light at the end of the tunnel. But that just makes it all the more heartening when they succeed in the end. As I've said before, I miss this kind of thing, and I was glad to see it here.

There's some great visual flourishes; Jack's creeping frost is beautiful, forming elaborate patterns and displaying recognisable images as it grows, Sandman's creations emit a warm glow as they spread hypnotically across the landscape, the Tooth Fairies' iridescent feathers are dazzling. Voice acting was great; and no doubt contributed greatly to how quickly we come to care about the characters. I have to be honest and say that I didn't pay much attention to the music, but a friend who is far more aware of such things told me it was great, and I do know that it did it's job perfectly as I always felt the emotions the film was trying to convey.

I found it rather interesting that the visual design for the villain, Pitch (as in Pitch Black, the Boogeyman) was so plain. I rather like it; sometimes simple is better, he certainly managed to convey a great deal of menace but also had a tragic element that would have been lost if his outwards appearance had been less neutral. Having said that, his nightmare creations were not very scary. I mean, they were horses. Angry horses, but horses. Not really the stuff of nightmares in my opinion. I suppose you don't really want the movie to be too scary, but the fact is I just don't think he has the impact of some of the great villains of animation. Perhaps it's his relatively plain appearance, or the way that he came out strong to begin with rather than suddenly escalating and catching us by surprise at the end (think Ursula with the power of Neptune's staff), or maybe it's the fact that the more you think about it the more you feel sorry for him. Regardless, he felt like a weaker element of the movie to me - but of course that's subjective.

The movie is not as moving as Up or How to Train your Dragon, though it is far more energetic and exciting. It might not be as epic as Legend of the Guardians, but it's much funnier and more consistent. The end might seem cheesy, even silly, to many of us, but it's something I would have loved as a child, and remembering that helped me to enjoy it today despite being a grumpy cynical old man. Perhaps what the film does most impressively is capture that spirit of wonder and excitement that we used to feel as children and can typically only remember fondly now. What more could you ask for from a movie starring Santa and the Easter Bunny?

I'm giving it a 9/10, it's highly enjoyable and I strongly recommend it.


There's a time in the middle of the movie where Jack acts very self-centered and even selfish, more concerned with getting answers to his questions than with, well, saving the world. He does some stupid things, and normally I would have little patience for the kind of mistakes he makes. But when I remembered that he had spent three hundred years ignored by the world, wondering who he was and why he was there, asking questions that no-one would ever hear, much less answer... well, then I understood how he could make such mistakes.

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