There’s a pretty big disconnect between children’s books and children’s films. The former still occasionally produces a work that’s moody, thoughtful, and doesn’t treat its audience like drooling miniature idiots. The latter hasn’t received the memo that it’s okay to trust kids’ (admittedly, somewhat limited) attention spans. Make a great film for children with a great story—My Neighbor Totoro hops to mind—and the bells and whistles won’t matter. Trust them. They’ll watch. They’ll listen.
Rise of the Guardians is based on the beautifully illustrated books of William Joyce. (Check out his terrific/scary/sad/hopeful children’s book The Leaf Men for a great read.) Guardians reimagines the origins of childhood’s greatest heroes (Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Sandman, and Tooth Fairy) as an Avengers-style team that—in addition to their day jobs—protects the innocence of kids around the world. And when the evil Pitch (voiced by Jude Law) figures out a way to turn Sandman’s sweet dreams into nightmares, an insecure Jack Frost (Chris Pine) is invited to join the super holiday team.
There’s fun to be had here—Santa (Alec Baldwin) is a burly, tough Russian with “naughty and nice” tattoo sleeves, while the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) is an Australian boomerang-throwing badass. Meanwhile, Jack Frost is a boisterous but sad sprite who doesn’t know where he’s from or where he belongs. All these heroes—splendidly rendered—would be fantastic ingredients for a fun, thoughtful retelling of beloved characters… if it weren’t for Hollywood’s trust issues.
Three quarters of Rise of the Guardians involve unnecessary, dizzying action sequences (such as Jack swinging through the streets, à la Spider-Man), rather than focusing on building characters, plot, and the subtext of the story. While the ending works, it does so just barely—and makes one long for the great, gorgeous, thoughtful children’s film that Rise of the Guardians could’ve been.