I was always a sucker for fractured fairy tales, like those on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. I love seeing a familiar story retold from a skewed point of view, or a well-known character placed in an unusual setting. The concept combines the comfort of a well-worn tale with the buzz of originality that comes from seeing the unexpected. There’s both the sense of security and thrill of risk-taking that are equal parts of my sense of how an ideal life should be lived.
Joining this tradition is Rise of the Guardians, a animated tale (with an awful, vague title) that recasts a group of familiar folklore figures as a union of superheroes, the Guardians, whose mission is the protect the children of the world. Kind of like Marvel’s Avengers or D.C.’s Justice League — only instead of Iron Man and Captain America, or Superman and Batman, there’s Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Sandman.
Each of these characters is a bit different than you’ve seen before. Santa, called Nicholas St. North, is a huge Russian man with tattoos of “Naughty” and “Nice” on his arms. He wields two swords as he heads into battle, and his toys are made by Abominable Snowmen instead of elves. (Having Alec Baldwin voice the part with a thick, fake accent seemed strange, but works fine.)
The Easter Bunny is Australian (a funny choice given that country’s difficulties in containing non-native rabbits), carrying around a boomerang and a testy temperament. The Tooth Fairy is part woman-part hummingbird overseeing a massive army of tiny woman-hummingbird hybrids who patrol the world collecting children’s teeth from underneath their pillows at night. The Sandman is a short, mute man made out of sand (naturally) who casts sweet dreams into the minds of young sleepers.
When the evil Bogeyman, known as Pitch Black, threatens to destroy the belief of children in the Guardians and to overrun the world with literal nightmares, they turn to their unseen overlord, the Man in the Moon, for advice. From him they learn that a new Guardian will join their cause: the mischievous Jack Frost.
Jack cares only for blanketing the world in cold so that children can enjoy snow days. At first he has no interest in joining the team, but soon he learns that through helping the others he may be able to discover his forgotten past.
It’s fun to peek inside Santa’s North Pole fortress, to glimpse the Easter Bunny’s warren with his army of semi-sentient eggs being painted for the holiday, to see the Tooth Fairy’s nest and hear her delight in acquiring teeth. These characters are drawn with a sense of humor that will entertain adults in the audience just as much as it will children.
The movie is a based on a series of novels written by William Joyce, who co-directed last year’s Oscar-winning short The Fantastic Flying Books or Mr. Morris Lessmore, and studied at SMU. Where it fails to become a great animated film, one with as much resonance for adults as for children (like the gold standard by Pixar), is in the over-earnestness of its lessons. In its universe, fear is plainly bad and destructive. Hope and wonder and having fun are unquestionably good. It’s not so much those messages but the fact that they are explicitly hammered into the mind of audience again and again that’s a little off-putting.
But these are relatively minor quibbles. As I said, I’m a sucker for this style of storytelling. It’s fun. Let’s just hope they come up with a better title for the sequel.