Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Cinema File #39: "Rise Of The Guardians" Review

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is the 2012 blockbuster with 'Rise' in the title that ISN'T a huge disappointment.

I have to say, the past few months have been quite good for animation buffs such as myself. From the frenetically entertaining Hotel Transylvania to the superbly morbid Paranorman, and finally to the heartwarming hero's journey of Wreak It Ralph just earlier this month, I'm almost tempted to start throwing out words like 'renaissance'. Admittedly, the lackluster failure of Brave had me a bit worried at first, but after this lot, I can't complain. There was one more animated movie due out this year that I was anticipating, and it had an unexpectedly high standard to meet after so many great late editions, and I'm happy to report that Rise of the Guardians more than exceeded those expectations.

I'll get to the story in a moment, but first I need to mention that this movie is by far the most visually exciting film I've seen all year, if not in several years. I try not to use the word 'beautiful' too much (or maybe I use it all the time and just don't notice), but this movie is just that from beginning to end. Every character design, movement, location, and action set piece is simply breathtaking and better than anything I've seen in a long time. As always, I didn't see this in 3D, and I almost want to say that I really should have, but paradoxically, I think the amazing look of this movie in good old fashioned 2D (or at least as 2D as you can get with a CG movie) almost illustrates just how useless the medium of 3D is. If you need 3D to become immersed in the world of this movie, than you're already blind, and I don't think the third dimension is going to do much good.

Rise of the Guardians follows the story of Jack Frost, a ghostly bringer of snow days who longs to be seen by the children he plays with, until he is recruited by a cadre of imaginary beings led by Santa Claus to fight off the Boogeyman, who seeks to bring fear back to the world by destroying the hope children have in dreams and holidays. It is in short the kind of fantasy film I clamor for every year that rarely ever comes, or at least rarely with this level of talent and ingenuity behind it. I might have to pull this back later upon further reflection, but it might just be the perfect family film, succeeding where the others this year (yes, even Paranorman) fell short by seamlessly blending those elements that would appeal to all ages so neatly that I don't think I could point to one moment that was strictly for kids or strictly for adults. As much as I liked Wreak It Ralph for example, there are huge swaths of that movie where I imagine someone half my age or twice my age would just shrug.

When most people talk about kids shows or kids movies that adults can enjoy, they rarely note the often awkward division between juvenile and mature elements. It's why the TV show Animaniacs never appealed to me as a kid even though so many people now laud it for its large appeal, because even as there were many things in it for me, there were also jokes that I had no way of getting because they weren't intended for me, but rather for those much older than I was. The idea most of the time is to just be as even as possible, throwing in enough good for as many different age groups and potential audiences as possible so that no one is alienated from their level of humor for too long. To please all groups at the same time is such a hard line to walk that I can't really bring myself to judge a movie harshly for not being able to navigate it, but I have to make special mention of one when it does it so effortlessly. Rise of the Guardians does this, and makes it look easy.

Precisely because I've seen so many bad, flawed, and or downright annoying animated films supposedly designed for a mass audience, I can see the potential pitfalls all over this movie, but it sidesteps them every time and makes you realize how cynical you were to expect the worst. Just before the movie started, my theater was treated with what is quite possibly the most annoying teaser trailer ever made, with the yellow things from Despicable Me singing a gibberish version of Barbara Ann, and it only made me dread the wacky mute elves I'd seen in the trailers for this film, but this movie even gets the silly comic relief little monster cliche right. I could write a whole article on all the countless ways the Aussie accented Easter Bunny could have been insufferable (top of the list, played by Hugh Jackman), but even that character is endearing instead of annoying as he would have been in any other movie.

You might think that in a movie where Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman, the Tooth Fairly, and Jack Frost all team up to fight the Boogeyman, that at least a few of those characters would come off as silly or useless, but no. Everyone has their moments, even the freaking Tooth Fairy, who one would easily imagine would be the weak link, but in fact is integral to the story. I loved every single one of them, and if I had one single complaint on the character front, its that my favorite one leaves the movie far too early for my tastes, but even then, I can't find that much reason to complain. The characters are so good in this movie that I wanted to see a whole spin off film of the mute Yeti who loves to paint, and when you see the movie, I have a feeling you will too. And yes, the Yetis may just be the best part of the movie, or at the very least, the most awesome addition to the final fight, seconded by the giant egg rock monsters.

The thing I liked so much about Paranorman was how mature its underlying themes were, and if I could fault Rise of the Guardians in any way in comparison, it is that thematically speaking, the story is much more traditional kid friendly fare. It's a lot of following your heart, being true to yourself, and learning to be brave, and doesn't really concern itself with anything more weighty than that. On top of that, the film seems to go to great links in establishing an emotional connection between the villain and Jack, to the point where I almost thought they were gonna pull a Vader moment and reveal a secret family connection, and yet by the end, as the Boogeyman is revealed to be motivated by much the same pain as Jack was, he is not accepted by the Guardians as Jack is, but rather punished. Its a minor quibble, but it left me somewhat disturbed considering how much time the film spends on the notion of redemption.

In fact, the metaphysics of this film are a bit bothersome now that I think about it. The crux of the film is that these magical beings are chosen and are essentially just filling their roles as assigned to them by the Man in the Moon, who for all intents and purposes is God. This would imply that the villain's impulse to spread fear, which is all he knows and all he is, is just as much a divine calling for him as protecting children is for the Guardians. Fear, like hope or love or anything else, is a vital evolutionary advantage, and yet in spite of their apparent shared origins, they are placed at odds almost as though they are merely the playthings of a capricious deity. Naturally, none of this is explicit in the movie and merely my interpretation, and I'm almost certainly over-thinking it, but then, I wouldn't be able to do that if this movie wasn't so inspirational to begin with.

Go see this movie right now. To heck with recommendations. Stop what you're doing and go watch it. This movie is like your long dead sense of whimsey and child-like wonder punching you right in your cynical little face. And you'll love it.

Do it now!

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