With 2010's “How to Train Your Dragon,” DreamWorks Animation shook itself out of its “Shrek” dependency and started giving Pixar some genuine artistic competition. From its sumptuous art direction to its older-kid sensibility, “Rise of the Guardians” visibly has “Dragon” DNA, but despite the magical pull of Santa's sleigh, the story based on William Joyce's “The Guardians of Childhood” never reaches the previous film's altitude.
Much of the storyline centers on Jack Frost (voice of Chris Pine), the immortal ice sprite who can put anything into deep freeze on contact. He is being considered for status as a “guardian,” joining North (a kind of hard-edge version of Santa Claus voiced by Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and the always-mute Sandman in bringing good things and sweet dreams to children. Frost is responsible for snow days, providing unexpected breaks from school, but as most of the guardians realize, most children don't believe there is a real Jack Frost — he's more of an expression.
All the characters derive their power from children's belief in them, and if that faith, hope and love goes away, so does the magic behind Christmas, Easter and money under the pillow. This gives an opening to Pitch (Jude Law), aka the Boogeyman, who wants to spread his nightmares and end the Guardians' influence. So “Rise of the Guardians” pivots on whether Jack Frost can keep a few kids in the belief column, especially a young boy named Jamie (Dakota Goyo), as Pitch wages his dark war on innocence.
Given that premise, it is odd that Joyce and director Peter Ramsey try so hard to make their Santa Claus and Easter Bunny characters so cool — North is a tough, intimidating Russian with full tattoo sleeves covering his arms, and the Bunny has some serious ego and rage issues. In spirit, tinkering with icons of this sort is slightly reminiscent of the botch job Warner Bros. committed on Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck with its mercifully short-lived “Lunatics” series. Santa Claus does not have to be a tough guy to be cool.
“Rise of the Guardians” is beautifully rendered — there are times during Jack Frost's early sequences that look photorealistic — and it shows that the studio is putting real effort into making their flagship animated films pop off the screen, with or without 3-D. But like so many holiday event movies before it, “Rise of the Guardians” misses the mark just slightly, perhaps because competing with the actual dreams of children makes for tough competition. It's not a lump of coal, but it's not an Xbox, either.
— George Lang
‘Rise of the Guardians'
Starring: Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman, Isla Fisher, Jude Law. (Thematic elements and some mildly scary action)