Do not envy the filmmaker trying to make an original holiday movie. It’s all been done. Santa has been played by the likes of Tim Allen and Paul Giamatti. He’s had problems with overgrown elves (Will Ferrell in Elf) and recalcitrant brothers (Vince Vaughn in Fred Claus). He’s been forced into marriage (Santa Clause 2) and working retail (Miracle on 34th Street). Robert Zemeckis (The Polar Express) and Aardman Animation (Arthur Christmas) both walloped him with high tech.
But I am not sure that he has ever wielded a scimitar in each hand while speaking like a Russian gangster, as he does in DreamWorks Animation’s highly contrived and often confusing Rise of the Guardians, which is adapted from children’s book author and Robots production designer William Joyce’s Guardian series. Voiced by Alec Baldwin, this Santa character (called North) has bigger troubles than toy delivery. He has to go to war with a Voldemort-like boogeyman named Pitch (Jude Law) in order to save childhood innocence, and to do so he needs the help of the mythical Guardians. They include the treacle-sweet Tooth (Isla Fisher), the cocky Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) and the Sandman (voiced by no one; he’s kind of a mime).
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But the usual suspects aren’t enough. Pitch is desperate for attention—supposedly no one believes in the boogeyman anymore, although the popularity of the Paranormal Activity series would suggest otherwise—and begins to cast a dark mood over children everywhere. The Man in the Moon recommends the Guardians add reinforcements in the form of mischief-maker Jack Frost (Chris Pine). He’s a surprise choice; the kids don’t believe in Jack Frost, if they’ve ever heard of him. Poor Jack. If he’s lucky, maybe he’ll get a mention from a mom instructing her kid to put on a coat, lest Jack Frost nip at his or her nose or fingers and toes. Enter the reluctant fifth Guardian; the Hulk in this kiddie version of The Avengers.
Pitch’s first nefarious act is to steal all the teeth collected by Tooth and capture all her little tooth minions, making it impossible for her to continue to collect baby teeth in the interim. On North’s mega globe, the lights representing belief immediately begin to go out. Without cash for canines, faith is no more. And it’s April, so Bunny is the next threatened Guardian.
There is cinematic precedent for Santa hanging with the other representatives of all major holidays involving gifts, candy or money. He had some dealings with the “Council of Legendary Figures” in the Santa Clause movies, including all of the above plus Mother Nature, Father Time and Cupid. Jack Frost was the outsider in that scheme as well (Martin Short played him as a saboteur in Santa Clause 3). In Norse legends Jokul Frosti was downright dangerous. In this incarnation he’s about 12 years-old, a barefoot sprite with grey hair, cute and kind of like a miniature Richard Gere. Jack is bound to be a hit with boys in the audience, especially after Rise of the Guardian’s best sequence, in which Jack takes a still-believing boy sledding at top speed through quintessential small-town America. The character feels fresh and new, re-imagined as someone kids can relate to and ultimately (no spoilers) proves to have a bittersweet back story. On his own, Jack could carry a movie. Instead the movie, directed by Peter Ramsey, a longtime art department guy making his feature film debut, grinds through various machinations to make Jack a member of this fraternity. As for the business of having the Tooth Fairy develop a crush on Jack, simpering while she paws at him? Creepy and no way to protect childhood innocence. (I’d take Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in a tutu over this twit any day.)
Joyce’s Guardian series takes place 300 years prior to the action in this story, which was written and tailored specifically for the movie, is old fashioned and beautifully illustrated, and some of that translates to screen. Tooth and her minions, depicted as pretty little hummingbirds, could be the realization of the great illustrator Arthur Rackham. But the Sandman, drawn to look like an amber-colored Pikachu and giving off the sunny glow of Harpo Marx, is a dud. And his presence feels unnatural, especially without any reference to his current obscurity. The movie depicts Jack Frost as being forgotten by the current generation, but come on, the Sandman? While Pat Ballard’s song from 1954, with its lyrics “bring me a dream” prolonged in the Sandman mythology, we’re two generations removed from Sandman days. Modern children tend go to sleep to the sounds of whales or white noise, with nary a mention of the Sandman.
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He’s unlikely to be resuscitated because of his appearance in Rise of the Guardians, even though he, perhaps more than any of the other characters, is portrayed as a key player in the violent battle climax. The narrative choice, hand-to-hand combat and a showdown in the streets in order to save children from cynicism and non-believing, is ironic but hardly surprising; like most children’s movies, Rise of the Guardians mimics the patterns of adult entertainment. Where is the magic in that?