Thursday, 16 May 2013

Rise of the Guardians

I'm a Pixar boy. I just want to put that out on the table to begin with. I spent the better part of my childhood growing up on their films and fell in love with the company in the process. As a result of this I have to admit I've developed a slight case of animation snobbery, which has for the most part found a target in DreamWorks. Outside of the Shrek franchise nothing DreamWorks has put out has really caught my eye, however when How to Train Your Dragon started generating praise from both friends and critics I did start to rethink my quick judgement. This review is my exploration of the other face of contemporary animation.

Rise of the Guardians
Peter Ramsey // 2012 // PG // 97 mins

Jack Frost (Chris Pine) was created by the man in the moon 300 years ago and has spent most of that time questioning both his purpose and his heritage, all the while bringing snow days to the children of the world. But when the evil boogeyman Pitch Black (Jude Law) begins turning the dreams of children into nightmares Jack is initiated into the legendary elite, joining the ranks of Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and the Sandman in order to save the children they are sworn to protect and in the process save themselves from being forgotten. 

The films concept is extremely interesting. Bringing together a group of figures that the majority of viewers will be familiar with and at some point in their life may have believed to be real certainly leaves a great deal of room to explore preconceptions of the characters and the chance to break stereotypes. Not only is it enjoyable seeing this fabled figures working as a team, but the interplay between each of them and the exploration of which is considered the most important or influential to children allows for numerous laughs, which are thankfully not overly drawn out or a central theme of the plot. The vocal talents employed here are all interesting choices which are as a whole quite successful. Pine provides enough charm to make his central figure and engaging guide through what can be quite a bracing world while Fisher and Law bring the most exaggerated performances, delivering perfect doses of (borderline annoying) excitability and unsettling smarminess respectively. The most jarring performances come from Baldwin's Russian St. Nick, whose authoritative tones work surprisingly well, and the Easter Bunny, who seems to have been made Australian for the sole purpose of using Hugh Jackman's native accent (the Easter Bilby, anyone?). While this bizarre choice of voice may have been used as a way to heighten his 'toughness' it's only narrative justification is that it allows for the occasional kangaroo joke, which is quite simply not enough.

Visuals are quite obviously of the upmost importance in an animated feature, and quite frustratingly Rise of the Guardians lacks consistency in both design and animation quality. The settings are all of the high standard expected for this kind of story, portraying vast, fantastical worlds that provide new and inventive iterations of the worlds these characters occupy, with only Mr Claus conforming to a standard representation through his familiar snowy hut in the North Pole, although how much can you really alter Santa's crib. Character design is a little more uneven. The Sandman and Tooth Fairy are brilliantly re-invented and stunningly rendered, displaying the films great attention to texture and details. The Easter Bunny's transformation into a rough 'n ready Aussie hare is slightly jarring but works well, while turning Santa into a Russian ice road trucker, complete with tattoo sleeves, is genius and infuses a clever break from tradition into the character.

Jack's design unfortunately lacks the originality of the other guardians and while the decision to have him wear a blue hoodie no doubt enforces his position as 'one of the kids' it seems rather uninspired for someone who has had three hundred years to construct his image. The most disappointingly realised character however comes in the form of Pitch who, as the boogeyman, should open himself up to countless design opportunities, but instead is made to look like a lazy Voldermort-with-hair wannabe. Outside of character design the animators truly excel in the realisation of small details that heighten the wonder of these figures. Both the frost effects (which branch out as elegant paisley leaf designs over anything Jack touches) and the sand-dream constructions that the Sandman dispenses among the children are stunningly realised and display the true level of talent and capabilities among the DreamWorks animators.

The story is entertaining and the characters endearing enough to save the film from ever becoming too clich├ęd or overly sentimental. While the animation is at times gorgeous, it is still a long way from matching the consistently stunning work being produced by Pixar. The plot, however, shows a spark of originality and inspiration that indicates there is much more to be seen from DreamWorks and what they have to offer. Rise of the Guardians is brilliantly fun and if the rest of DreamWorks output can at least match the quality this film then I'll certainly be giving them more attention in the future.

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