Review: Rise of the Guardians
Opening today nationwide, Rise of the Guardians is the DreamWorks Studios bid for a holiday blockbuster. But is it worth your while? And how does it stack up for a family picture — in particular, as a picture for Catholic families?
Let me put it this way:
Rise of the Guardians is the movie GK Chesterton would have made if he were alive and working at DreamWorks.
It’s the movie CS Lewis would have written if Jeffrey Katzenberg had said to him, “Remember when Father Christmas shows up in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? Forget Narnia, let’s do a movie about him.”
A rollicking story in the classic adventure story tradition, Rise of the Guardians pits four — and a possible number five — fairy-tale figures against an equally fabulous villain. When the film opens, the four Guardians are hard at work: “North” is busy monitoring the world for who’s naughty and who’s nice, while his army of yetis makes toys for Christmas. The Sandman is dispensing dreams to sleeping children. “Tooth” is directing bevies of tiny fairies to pick up lost teeth and bring them to her palace. The Easter Bunny is getting eggs ready for Easter, only three days away. And Jack Frost — who isn’t a Guardian and doesn’t know where he came from or what he’s supposed to do — is causing mayhem by making things freeze, and getting children to romp in the snow.
That all changes when an ancient enemy arises: Pitch Black, also known as “the Boogeyman.” Conquered centuries ago by the Guardians and relegated to nothing but a spooky memory no one really believes in, Black has discovered how to harness the Sandman’s power and turn dreams into nightmares. Soon, Pitch promises, it’s the Guardians who will be dim memories. Children will be left with nothing but fear. He sets his army of black horses (literally “night mares”) to undo all the work of the Guardians, so there is nothing for children to believe in.
How the Guardians fight back and how Jack Frost discovers who he is and what he’s supposed to do make up the rest of this delightful movie. That, and a short but important foray into the everyday world, and a visit to some of the children living in it. Warning: The trailers and the commercials don’t capture the tone of this film, which is beautiful without being saccharine, and full of wonder without being precious. The Guardians are strong, robust figures, with a serious mission, some serious combat skills, and formidable technology at their disposal. They’re also brimming with humor without being arch or cynical, the cheap sort of humor too common in children’s films (and those for adults too).
In other words, the Guardians are fully alive — and in a big way. Their job is to guard children, so that the memories of believing in them will last and will help guide their whole lives. The mysterious Man in the Moon has chosen Jack Frost to be a new Guardian, but how can he fight Pitch Black when that master of fear is preying on his own secret fears?
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The people who made this movie seem to actually like human beings, and especially children, which is more uncommon in family movies than one would imagine. They are also in love with the breathtaking visual world they’ve created — and what’s not to love? The animators have created intricate and beautiful palaces for three of the Guardians (the fourth lives on a cloud of glittering golden sand). We’ve all imagined the toy factory at the North Pole, although perhaps not one with swords over the fireplace and a control panel for the the Northern Lights — but who ever imagined the combined castle/airport/library ruled by the Tooth Fairy? Or the underground kingdom where the Easter Bunny reigns? Half Easter Island and half Willy Wonka’s “world of pure imagination,” it’s breathtaking when it could easily have been sickening. North’s sleigh is part spaceship, part rollercoaster; and the flock of tooth fairies are based, not on young girls with wings, but on iridescent hummingbirds.
The story is equal to the visuals, thanks to a script by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire with help from author William Joyce (whose artwork also inspired the film); music by four-time Academy Award nominee Alexandre Despla; voice acting by Alec Baldwin (North), Hugh Jackman (the Easter Bunny), Chris Pine (Jack Frost), Ilsa Fisher (Tooth) and Jude Law (Pitch). Guillermo del Toro served as an executive producer.
Who won’t like this movie? Literalists — mostly Protestant but some Catholic as well — who will object to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny being put on par with the Tooth Fairy, and to there being no mention of the “real meaning” of Christmas or Easter. I predict the usual grousing about “taking Christ out of Christmas,” but it will be misplaced, because this movie has a profoundly Catholic sensibility and rock-solid religious underpinnings.
No serious Catholic, for instance, could fail to notice the movie’s setting, which is not Christmas at all but three days before Easter. Pitch steals hope from the world during the Triduum, the days we commemorate because all hope seemed lost. But that was an illusion, and Pitch is Satan explained at a child’s level: He has no power to hurt anyone, but his lies and nightmares can make people despair.
The Guardians are warriors sent to defeat him (St. Michael, remember, is a Guardian) but in the end — spoiler alert! — it’s what the children do that matters. The Guardians make it possible for them to act. The greatest problem the children face is that the nightmares they experience are real, while the things that made them believe in the Guardians, lost teeth replaced with coins and hidden Easter eggs, have disappeared. The movie grapples with the problem of how anyone can believe in something he can’t see or touch, and even has one child begging his toy rabbit (a stand-in for the Easter Bunny) for just one sign that he is real.
Even the Guardians suffer this depravation. The four existing Guardians have long ago learned to trust their messages from the Man in the Moon, but Jack Frost has never received anything from him except his life and his name. At one point he shouts at the moon to tell him what he wants him to do and why he is there at all.
The great themes of prayer, faith, belief, and despair are what give the film its power, while so many consciously “Christian” movies fall flat. Rise of the Guardians addresses an important truth for both children and adults: Fear is real. But it also promises that help exists, whether you can see it or not; and that fear never conquers. It presents a world that Catholics should be familiar with, one full of unseen forces and beings constantly at work on behalf of (and sometimes in opposition to) mankind, one in which all things are essentially beautiful and good, and in which bad things are really good things twisted into what they’re not meant to be. In other words, it presents the world as we believe it really is, whether there’s an Easter Bunny or not.
And yes, it’s worth the extra money to see it in 3-D.
Rise of the Guardians has a rather limited web site with activities and games, and is a companion film to The Guardians of Childhood, a series of picture books and chapter books by author/illustrator William Joyce. The books are deliberately set 300 years before the film, so that children can enjoy them separately.
For our previous reviews, click here.
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