Kids movies generally try to be inclusive, but DreamWorks Animation's latest cartoon Rise of the Guardians is built on a faulty premise that excludes a healthy chunk of its audience from the get-go. Here's the set-up: long, long ago, when Earth was shrouded in darkness after the sun set (electricity still being a few centuries off), the bogeyman Pitch (voiced by Jude Law) -- as in Pitch Black -- held sway, striking fear into the hearts of little girls and boys. So the Man in the Moon decided to provide these tykes with some inner light in the form of the Guardians -- figures of myth and legend who represent all that is good in the world. As long as children put their faith and belief in the Guardians, they'll never be troubled by the bogeyman. But if that faith is ever shaken, the Guardians -- like another famous sprite whose life hinges on the belief of children -- are at risk of winking out of existence, once again allowing Pitch to infect young minds with his brand of terror.
So who are these all-important Guardians of childhood optimism? Well, there's the Sandman, who merrily (and silently) sends kids off to slumber land, heads filled with pleasant dreams; the flighty Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), who collects their teeth -- teeth that in this telling contain their most precious childhood memories -- in exchange for quarters; the grouchy Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), who carefully cultivates his crop of eggs before hiding them in odd places for squealing kiddies to find; and Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the big, bearded dude that keeps children steadily supplied with presents every December. In order to combat a newly resurgent Pitch, the Man in the Moon nominates a new member to join the ranks of this core four: Jack Frost (Chris Pine), the rambunctious, if moody teenage imp who brings the joy of ice and snow wherever he travels. (Well, it's joyous for kids anyway; us adults just pull our scarves a little tighter and curse.) So basically, this group of protectors that kids around the world are expected -- nay, virtually required to believe in -- consists of three characters from European folklore and a pair of figureheads who represent two distinctly Christian holidays. Sucks to be all those kids who hail from other cultures and religions, I suppose. Honestly, a more accurate title for the movie would be: Rise of the Guardians of the Western World.
Look, I'm not here to be the spoilsport who tells little kids that they shouldn't believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. (Although I would say that there is an age limit on those beliefs; if you're 15 and still unironically leaving milk and cookies out for Santa, you need to have a long talk with your parents about where presents really come from.) But I found it deeply problematic that Rise of the Guardians preaches the importance of belief in figures who are only culturally and/or religiously relevant to a specific segment of the world's population -- a sizeable chunk of said population to be sure, but certainly not the entire planet as the film suggests. I haven't read the series of books that the movie is based on, so I don't know if it's a systemic problem with the source material or a case where something crucial was lost in the page-to-screen translation. What I do know is that Rise of the Guardians is a film that purports to be for all children, but through its very premise winds up isolating the "believers" from the kids in the audience for whom the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and, hell, even Jack Frost mean very little. That the movie essentially ends up telling those viewers that they're leaving their hearts and minds open to the bogeyman by not wholeheartedly worshipping these figures is thoughtless at best and downright cruel at worst.
Even without this extra baggage, Rise of the Guardians would be a decidedly second-rate DreamWorks production. The main thing the movie has going for it is its distinct animation style and character design, with the animators concocting agreeably unique twists on the characters' traditional looks. Santa, for example, is a burly, tattooed giant who looks more like a bouncer (or a WWE wrestler) than the Coca Cola-approved Jolly Old Saint Nick. With her hummingbird wings and forest-green ensemble, the Tooth Fairy is also a memorable creation and it helps that Fisher contributes the movie's strongest vocal performance, free of Baldwin's showy accent and Jackman and Pine's lackadaisical line readings. (Too bad a similar amount of thought wasn't put into the design for Jack Frost, who just resembles your average angsty teenager complete with Justin Bieber-like hair and a hoody.) Director Peter Ramsey also manages to make room within the overly busy action sequences for a few 3D-enhanced images of startling beauty. But those rare grace notes just drive home how routine the rest of the movie feels. Handed these larger-than-life mythological characters, Rise of the Guardians brings them down to earth by plugging them into the paint-by-numbers story of a team of superheroes who have banded together to combat a bad guy bent on world domination. (It's like The Avengers with Santa Claus in the role of Iron Man.) And, in the end, how can children be expected to care about and believe in the Guardians when the film itself barely seems to?
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