Toplined by Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and an army of tittering tooth fairies, “Rise of the Guardians” yearns to be a magical experience, the kind that implores audiences of all ages to abandon skepticism and embrace their childlike sense of wonder. Yet even tots may emerge feeling slightly browbeaten by this colorful, strenuous and hyperactive fantasy, which has moments of charm and beauty but often resembles an exploding toy factory rather than a work of honest enchantment. Accessible storybook elements and 3D thrill-ride aesthetics should yield robust holiday biz, though likely not at the level of DreamWorks toon-franchise fare.
Loosely adapted by playwright and occasional screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire from William Joyce’s book series “The Guardians of Childhood” (as well as from Joyce’s short pic “The Man in the Moon”), the film boasts a wondrous premise centered around a secret circle of supernatural gift-givers tasked with protecting the children of the world from darkness and despair. These iconic Guardians include North (voiced by Alec Baldwin), a well-built, Slavic-accented Santa; Bunny (Hugh Jackman), who turns every Easter into a most egg-cellent holiday; Tooth (Isla Fisher), who relies on her pint-sized minions to swap coins for incisors; and the mute but oh-so-eloquent Sandy, whose golden pixie dust ensures the sweetest of dreams.
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But those dreams are threatening to become permanent nightmares due to Pitch Black (Jude Law), an embittered boogeyman (think Voldemort with hair) who schemes to overthrow the Guardians by ensuring that all children cease to believe in them. By way of a strange lunar prophecy, it falls to the winter sprite known as Jack Frost (Chris Pine) to join their ranks and save the day, to the initial chagrin of the springtime-loving Bunny, who sees this icy outsider as a curious candidate for Guardianship.
The mystery of Jack’s lonely, frigid existence is established in a 300-years-earlier prologue gracefully directed by first-time feature helmer Peter Ramsey. Playful and mischievous, yet full of existential melancholy, Jack yearns for nothing more than to be seen and known by the human children he romps with, invisibly, in the snow. “Seeing is believing” would seem to be the operative theme here, and to that end, “Rise of the Guardians” devotes itself to making sure viewers buy every frame of its noisy, elaborate fantasy universe, peddling its visual wonders with slick, salesman-like aggressiveness.
There is, to be sure, a great deal to ooh and aah over, especially in 3D (lenser Roger Deakins served as a visual consultant, and the graphic influence of exec producer Guillermo del Toro is keenly felt). The film’s dynamically shifting angles are forever directing the viewer to look this way and that, from a room full of floating baubles at North’s Christmas emporium to the cute sight of hundreds of Easter eggs scuttling, on tiny feet, through Bunny’s underground warren. Scene after scene is liberally coated with Sandy’s shimmering yellow dust, painstakingly animated so as to assume all manner of clever shapes and patterns, and continually backed by the twinkling, surging accompaniment of Alexandre Desplat’s orchestral score.
Real enchantment shouldn’t have to work so hard or insist on its own importance, and as dazzling and stuffed with holiday cheer as it is, “Rise of the Guardians” somehow falls short of sustained magic. Proceeding breathlessly through a series of quest narratives, as the Guardians set out to save Tooth’s fairies and Bunny’s Easter festivities from Pitch’s malevolent interference, the story turns into a showy, self-congratulatory fable about the power and necessity of belief, even as its ostentatious production design leaves virtually nothing to the imagination.
As the prospect that no one might believe in Santa Claus anymore develops into a global calamity, the emotional and psychological needs of kids are duly defended with a pushiness that brings child-welfare activists to mind. Yet none of the tots here are developed as characters beyond their capacity for awestruck naivete, and that cloying, patronizing attitude extends to the picture as a whole, which feels beholden to some whiz-bang corporate ideal of what young people presumably want from entertainment. Individual setpieces feel like blueprints for future theme-park attractions, strapping viewers on a galumphing sleigh ride one minute, sending them whooshing through an interdimensional portal the next.
Offering a welcome respite from the busy proceedings are a few gravely poetic scenes devoted to Jack Frost in isolation, as he quietly seeks to untangle the secrets of his past and future. With his pale complexion, paler hair and soft, angular features, Jack at times suggests a character out of Japanese anime; as voiced by Pine, he’s an appealingly human protagonist and a genuinely captivating creation, providing a stark, refreshing contrast to the broad comic strokes and funny accents sported by his fellow Guardians.
Among the generally strong vocal turns, the standout performance is delivered by Law, whose silky-sinister British line readings could be mistaken for no other actor’s. Thesp makes Pitch a fairly memorable baddie, as well as a sympathetic embodiment of the “Bah, humbug” sentiments this lavishly overstuffed picture may unwittingly engender.