Based on William Joyce’s The Guardians of Childhood book series and a short film called The Man in the Moon, DreamWorks’ Rise of the Guardians follows the mythical character Jack Frost on a journey of self-discovery. I’ve seen this movie once before and thought it was pretty good, although I never understood the rabid Tumblr fandom surrounding the character of Jack. It wasn’t my favorite animated movie of 2012, but it vaguely reminded me of the old Rankin/Bass holiday specials while maintaining its own kind of charm. Like most DreamWorks animated features, Rise of the Guardians also sports an impressive array of voice talent and a gorgeous musical score. Is Rise of the Guardians a secret classic, or was it forgotten for a reason? Let’s take a look.
Rise of the Guardians finds an amnesiac Jack Frost (Chris Pine) wandering around, confused and invisible to the mortals around him. 300 years later, he brings joy to children by causing snow days and taking them for sled rides. In his free time, he terrorizes the likes of Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin) and the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman). Meanwhile, Santa receives a message from the Man in the Moon that the Boogeyman, Pitch Black (Jude Law), is on the move. Santa summons the Guardians of Childhood, including a new member, the reluctant Jack.
Rise of the Guardians excels at creating a sense of child-like wonder in its characters and audience. The world-building surrounding characters like the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and Santa Claus is endlessly creative both visually and in the writing. Tonally and visually, Rise of the Guardians shares little with the Rankin/Bass specials, but it feels like the same things motivated its creators. Rise of the Guardians doesn’t feature any specific holiday, and both the Sandman and Tooth Fairy aren’t associated with one. The film’s desire to give these characters a human side with a backstory is what reminds me of those old programs. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and Jack Frost (1979) come to mind.
Rise of the Guardians’ musical score by Alexandre Desplat is nothing short of magical. The whimsical melodies fit perfectly with the visuals and subject matter. When the music turns dark and foreboding to reflect the fear of the Boogeyman, Desplat succeeds in creating feelings of unease and anxiety. The cast of Rise of the Guardians is mostly very good. Alec Baldwin’s voice is unrecognizable as Santa Claus, due mostly to the Russian accent he uses. It fits this version of the character very well. This is my favorite role of his in a DreamWorks film because he really sinks into it. Makunga in Madagascar 2 and The Boss Baby are both examples of Baldwin playing himself, at least the version we know. Santa Claus is one of the best characters in this movie. He simultaneously connects with the feelings we had about him as children while succeeding as a fresh, new take on a familiar character. Hugh Jackman also shines as the Easter Bunny. He’s funny, he’s quirky, and he’s not what you’d expect. I actually wish we got to see more of this character and his home, the Warren.
It probably sounds like I loved Rise of the Guardians. I did enjoy it, and I’m glad I rewatched it, but it’s not perfect by any means. Isla Fisher is just okay as the Tooth Fairy. She doesn’t have a ton of dialogue, but it doesn’t feel like they put as much thought into this character as Santa or the Easter Bunny. I love her character design and large, ornate palace. I also like the idea of her helper fairies, although the way they drool over Jack is neither funny nor endearing. The Sandman is charming, but he never connects emotionally. I like his design and that he communicates by shaping his sand; that’s clever. And when you have this many characters in the foreground, I think it makes sense for one of them to be mute. I wouldn’t mind so much that he feels like an afterthought if there were a stronger emotional throughline with one or more of the leads, but that isn’t the case.
My biggest problem with Rise of the Guardians is Jack and Pitch and their relationship. For one thing, they’re both miscast. I like both Chris Pine and Jude Law a lot, but they don’t fit these roles. Jack Frost looks too young for Chris Pine’s voice, and Law never really sells the malice behind Pitch. I don’t entirely blame the actors because, in a vacuum, their performances aren’t awful. They’re pretty boring, but I don’t think the dialogue and character designs did them any favors. The look of the Boogeyman is totally forgettable and non-threatening. He’s just a guy who dresses like a Marilyn Manson fan, and I don’t know how to feel about that. They could have done something clever with this, like showing how the Boogeyman just looks like a regular guy until it’s too late. Or maybe he looks like nothing if you don’t believe in or fear him. But that’s not the angle the film takes at all; this character is just boring and contributes very little to the movie. This also makes Rise of the Guardians feel pretty low-stakes as a result. Also, since the Guardians are chosen by the Man in the Moon, I can’t help wondering if Pitch was similarly chosen. Is it his destiny to terrorize children and get beaten by Santa and his sidekicks? Maybe the Man in the Moon is the real bad guy; food for thought. I don’t think Jack makes it out as badly as Pitch, but his relationships with the other characters feel half-baked, and he gets some cringey dialogue. The final line in which he says to believe what the Moon tells you because it told him to be a Guardian is just bad. The film needed a bigger emotional payoff to bring it all together in the end, and this just isn’t it.
Overall, Rise of the Guardians has a lot going for it but almost as much weighing it down. The characters are a mixed bag, with Santa coming out the best. Jack and Pitch should have more of a relationship for their battles to feel meaningful. They both fear being forgotten, and I think the writers should have played with that more. The animation is also a mixture of masterful artwork like Tooth’s palace with mediocre character designs. The designs of the human children, in particular, leave much to be desired. The set-ups for a nonexistent sequel, like Tooth’s crush on Jack, are also frustrating to sit through. However, when this movie gets it right, it’s really something to behold. The sets are gorgeous and insanely intricate, the musical score is lovely, and the concept of the movie is admirable.