Unlike such vengeful, justice-dispensing figures as Jehovah and RoboCop, the traditional pantheon of made-up childhood gods is all carrot and no stick, dispensing toys, hiding hard-boiled eggs and remunerating children for their deciduous teeth. It's fun to tell lies to tiny people with an instinctive predisposition to believe everything grown-ups say — such as the assertion that windows get frosty and foliage turns colors because of this one particular dude.
Jack Frost (Chris Pine), the hoodie-wearing hero of director Peter Ramsey's sweet, fun Rise of the Guardians, has the terrifying ability to accelerate entropy and therefore hasten the heat death of the universe — or, in the comforting parlance of children's stories, he nips noses with frosty mischief.
Nobody can see or hear him, and he's super lonely. He has no memory of the life he had before becoming Jack Frost, and the only reason he even knows his name is because the moon told him, which is, no surprises there, a totally normal thing for the moon to do.
Jack coexists in the same world as Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy and the old sleepy-time sandman, collectively known as the Guardians, a coalition of powerful beings kind of like the Avengers, or '80s-era supergroup Damn Yankees. In that analogy, the Easter bunny would pretty clearly be Tommy Shaw. Santa Claus, the group's Ted Nugent, is voiced by Alec Baldwin and reimagined as a jolly, Russian alpha male whose forearms are sleeved in tribal tattoos.
Happily, the film skews away from the established templates for these archetypes in order to present something new. Santa Claus never goes “ho, ho, ho,” and he's apparently not in the business of rendering Manichean judgments on the behavior of children.
Not all its new templates are new, though. Hugh Jackman's E. Aster Bunnymund, the Easter bunny, is a boilerplate Australian rogue who, despite his fondness for bright pastels and hard-boiled eggs, is also deadly with (sigh) his boomerangs. The character leans pretty hard on audience preconceptions of Outback bumpkins, even delivering what has to be the world's most flaccid “that's not a knife” joke. The bunny walks the exceedingly fine line between crowd-pleasing hero and obnoxious stereotype.
By contrast, the sandman actually is a crowd-pleasing hero, a silent, Harpo Marx–ish sprite who communicates via the cute, floating sand emojis he telekinetically generates with his pineal gland, or something. He's the film's most formidable fighter, and the locus of several heroic moments, so naturally, the bad guy targets him first. And the tooth fairy (Isla Fisher) is a feathered and iridescent pixie with an army of little, color-coordinated birds comprising a world-class courier and express-delivery service, considering Earth's vast output of teeth. Here, baby teeth contain the earliest memories of the owners of the mouths from which they erupted, suggesting that Jack's memories are buried somewhere in an infinitely large pile of pulpy dentin and enamel.
Based on illustrator William Joyce's book The Guardians of Childhood, the film continues the migration of DreamWorks Animation away from the broad, staccato jokes and obvious pop culture references that characterized the studio's Shrek period in favor of something more enduring. As a visual artist, Joyce favors storybook timelessness, nostalgic Americana and the props of childhood, all of which inform Ramsey's film and is an approach long favored by rival studio Pixar. It might be unfair to compare Rise of the Guardians to that studio's two most recent films — narratively distracted efforts that, despite appealing characters, never quite cohere — but at times, it approaches some of Pixar's best.
If you completely unpack the film's plot, it's a hierarchical set of nested lies: A bunch of spritelike beings who, in real life, we've fabricated to trick children are, for movie purposes, actually real. But, if children stop believing in them, they will vanish in puffs of rationality. It's worth noting that this is exactly what will happen in real life, a milestone on the journey to existential disappointment. So the self-reinforcing work of these mythical beings is to kindle widespread belief in their own existence (i.e., lies). The bogeyman, known as Pitch (Jude Law), has an insidious plan to undermine the collective faith of the world's children by replacing the sandman's dreams with horrible nightmares and by interrupting the annual Easter pilgrimage of anthropomorphic eggs (long story).
To combat the bogeyman, the moon — apparently a kind of aloof, Nick Fury–grade administrative director — compels Jack Frost to join the Guardians in order to save the faith of the world's children and, by extension, the lives of the other Guardians. We meet the film's variations on these famous archetypes through his perspective, entailing confrontations with evil horses, aerial chase scenes, Luciferian temptations and a standard-issue coming-of-age adventure story.
That's all good, but here's a complaint: The fey, effete Pitch tears a page from the Disney Style Guide for Closeted Gay Villains in the tradition of Cruella de Vil, Ursula, the weirdly interchangeable Scar and Jafar, and Snow White's wicked stepmother. (Oh, and Skyfall.) It's obvious dog-whistle signaling for reactionary old people such as Brit Hume and Victoria Jackson, to whom gay people are the scariest possible villains. But in an era in which gay marriage has been legalized in nine states and the District of Columbia, this is the wrong kind of nostalgia.
RISE OF THE GUARDIANS | Directed by Peter Ramsey | Written by David Lindsay-Abaire | DreamWorks Animation SKG | Citywide