If Pixar has positioned itself as the classy Fred Astaire of animated films, the studio’s main rival in the feature-length cartoon business, DreamWorks Animation, is the sassy, brassy Gene Kelly. Now the studio behind the wisecracking Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar franchises enters the holiday season unopposed in the children’s market, and DreamWorks seems to have taken a page from Pixar’s playbook: A tale of a plucky outsider on an identity quest.
The hero is Jack Frost, a minor figure in the children’s pantheon, who awakened 300 years ago under a sheet of ice. Now he’s a skateboarding, globe-hopping, hoodie-wearing adolescent experiencing an existential crisis. Though he spends his time happily enough, flitting about and invisibly playing winter games with groups of children in the snow, he wonders where he came from and what his purpose in life could be. And what’s the point of being magic if no one recognizes you?
These questions get answered when Jack is summoned to join the Guardians, a team of supernatural beings committed to protecting the world’s children, sustained, reciprocally, by children’s belief in them. The leader, of course, is Santa Claus, only in this version he has the build of a retired pro wrestler who speaks with a Russian accent (voiced by Alec Baldwin), with the words “naughty”and “nice” tattooed on his brawny forearms. He goes by the name “North.” His fellow guardians include the ninja bunny E. Aster Bunnymund (Hugh Jackman), and the fairy, Tooth (voiced by Isla Fisher). Finally, there’s the golden bearish Sandy the Sandman.
Collectively, the Guardians are threatened by the bogeyman, a.k.a. Pitch Black (Jude Law), who looks and sounds like an English punk rocker and has a similar penchant for anarchy and bad teeth. Pitch wants to return the world to the Dark Ages and unleash his “night mares” – wraith-like flying black horses. Jack and his handy wooden staff must stop Pitch from thwarting the gathering of lost teeth and the annual distribution of Easter eggs. In the process, he learns about his origins and accepts his destiny.
All this feels formulaic and the believe-in-magic message is even more treacly than typical, but give first-time feature director Peter Ramsey credit for his visual panache. Rise of the Guardians is a glittering study in architectural spaces, from North’s amphitheatre-sized workshop to the imaginative chase sequences, with Easter eggs on feet running through Bunny’s global tunnel system. From time to time, as Alexandre Desplat’s insistent score surged yet again while the characters rushed by, I found myself wanting the movie to slow down. Some of these images are too beautiful to disappear so quickly.