I’ve always enjoyed a good hard cider Christmas story about the power of belief, especially with films that tell you that you’d better believe in Santa Claus or you’ll be a miserable wreck for the rest of your life. Of course, I still believe in Santa Claus, but if you’re an adult and you still believe in Santa, you understand the truth of what that means…that as an adult its not about Santa being a real person, but it’s keep alive in yourself that sense of wonder about the world, as well as sharing that spirit of that wonder with your children. Children of course believe in Santa the real person, but what they find out later on is that really the spirit of Santa is the extension of the parents love for their child. I’m a sucker for those great holiday films that try to reaffirm the power of belief, especially in adults when it comes to Christmas. Films like Miracle on 34th St., It’s a Wonderful Life, etc. One of my personal favorites is One Magic Christmas, a Disney film from the 80’s that REALLY goes to the dark side when you don’t believe in Santa Claus (in that film, when she doesn’t believe, her husband is shot and killed, and her kids are kidnapped and then drown in a river when the car goes over the side of an icy road! It’s a great movie though, and it does have the greatest Santa Claus ever put on film, I can’t wait to talk about that one later.) And now, there is a new addition to the “you’d better believe or else” story from Dreamworks: Rise of the Guardian’s.
Now, I’ll be up front about this. Rise of the Guardians is not a great film. But there’s nothing out right bad about it either. It’s heart is certainly in the right place when it comes to its message about the power of belief, and holding on to that sense of wonder about the world. It’s a film with a lot of really good ideas, that if only expanded on further it could have truly been something special. It holds back a little to much in places where it could have been really funny…for instance when the Boogeyman (named Pitch Black in the film) puts nightmares in all the children of the world, and uses his minions to snuff out every holiday (keeping easter eggs from reaching their hiding place, stealing all the money left by the tooth fairy, etc.) and in essence he makes it where almost every child in the world has stopped believing in Santa, The Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy, The Sandman, and Jack Frost, so the only figure left in their nightmares is their fears with the Boogeyman. In a way, if you think about it that somebody made it so every child in the world stopped believing in Santa Claus, that’s actually a pretty funny idea, which I thought could have been milked so much more for hilarious gags. The kids in the film essentially walk around like zombies during the day, because all of them have been having nightmares!
The movie follows Jack Frost, who in typical hero’s journey fashion, starts out as someone who doesn’t know who he is. The opening sequence was actually pretty engaging, and left me curious that this might actually be a pretty solid film. Unfortunately, once Jack meets the other Guardians, it becomes your typical animated film plot. And ONCE AGAIN, there’s the big scene where everybody hates Jack and nobody wants to be his friend anymore. Except of course the Boogeyman, who is dealing with the same problem as Jack in that children just don’t believe in them anymore. Even there, that could have been another interesting story point. There are some stories and film versions where Jack Frost as a trickster figure is sometimes portrayed as a villain. It would have been interesting, at least briefly if Jack did join Pitch out of bitter resentment for being cast out.
But while the film has its share of the usual animated film cliche’s I actually had a good time with it, and I was able to forgive most of the silly well trodded story points. I have to say if there were any characters in the film that I really loved in the movie, it was Santa’s Yeti helpers, who I wish could have been expanded upon more. They did have some of the best laughs in the movie.
There was only one major problem that annoyed me, which came at the end of the movie, and it‘s at the very end where the Guardians have Pitch Black cast out. I don’t think they should have done that. I actually felt they should have asked Pitch to join them as a Guardian. The Guardians aren’t about protecting children from “evil”. The Guardians are about protecting the children’s beliefs and their sense of wonder about the world. Pitch himself may be the most important out of all of them, because while his purpose is to scare children, he’s actually helping them to conquer their fears, and giving them something to believe in with the other Guardians. Without Pitch to challenge them, the children would have no reason to believe in their icons. So why would Jack of all people turn his back on Pitch who has the same problem as he does? And really, why couldn’t Pitch be accepted in their group? It’s not like he killed anybody. The worst he did was give kids nightmares (which is his job). What about acceptance and forgiveness? Which I think especially with the spirit of Santa Claus are important virtues to pass along. Instead, the ending turns the film into a “good vs. evil” parable between the Man in the Moon (God), and Pitch (The Devil).
As a comparison, I always thought of one of the great “boogeyman” villains was Jareth from the Jim Henson film, Labyrinth. I always thought secretly he really wasn’t a villain at all, but that he was actually there to help Sarah conquer her fears about herself…and help her to grow up. This feeling was indicated to me at the end of the movie, when Jareth in the form of the white owl watches the characters celebrating at her house, and then flies off, possibly moving on to the next person who needs help. You could call him a kind of trickster guardian angel. Which is the kind of villain I thought Pitch should have been in finding his place in the world. What else is the devil but a kind of trickster angel, who is there to tempt us and help us find the compassionate human side to ourselves?
So like I said, Rise of the Guardians is not a great movie, but it’s got good ideas, and it‘s probably one of the better animated films I’ve seen all year. If anything, I think Dreamworks is the one American animation studio out there that tries at least to break the mold and find a definite voice for themselves. They’ve done it a few times now with Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon. I’m finding myself more and more impressed with them as leaders in the industry, and I hope they continue to try and break the mold, and give us newer and more interesting stories for the future.