Wednesday, July 17, 2013

"I am at a moral crossroads, Mummy!" - Thoughts on "Rise of the Guardians"

Before this review gets rolling, I should make it clear that I am very glad that I revisited "Rise of the Guardians" before sitting down to write this review, because it would not have been fair to just go based off my foggy circa-Easter memories.  (Topical joke time: Look at me!  I am a more responsible film critic than Rex Reed!  [Note: very naughty language in that link.])  I did appreciate the movie a little more than I did the first go-round.  I must also give a shout-out to the Rotoscopers for their excellent episodes covering and supporting the film.

That said, I still don't like "Rise of the Guardians".  And you have to understand that I really, really wanted to love this movie to death.  Remember how excited I was when the first teaser trailer surfaced?  Man, I REALLY had sky-high hopes for the movie advertised in that teaser.  And it pains me so that I feel very strongly that the final version of "Rise of the Guardians" (henceforth "ROTG" because that title is just problems all the way down) is merely okay, with a lot of things that I found too problematic to ignore.

Above all else, the biggest problem I had with "ROTG" is how very weird the film is tonally.  It's downright melancholy for a movie where, as we were promised in that teaser, a badass dual-wielding Siberian Santa Claus teams up with the similarly badass Easter Bunny and very alien-looking Tooth Fairy to fight evil and save Christmas.  And it didn't hit me until the second viewing as to why this is:

"Rise of the Guardians" is that weird case where you do not learn until just a little bit over an hour into the movie that, all this time, you've actually been watching one of those movies for children where the main character dies in a horrible accident and then comes back as a supernatural something-or-other.

If you're a longtime reader, you might already know how much I love that particular genre.  And when they finally reveal that this is that kind of movie, they don't make it very ambiguous.  Our main character, Unimaginative RPG Protagonist Boy - err, I mean, Jack Frost, was a real live little boy who died in a skating accident.  Maybe it's just me, but that casts a considerable shroud over the entire movie.  The ENTIRE movie, back to front, because the very first thing we see in this film where a badass dual-wielding Siberian Santa Claus teams up with the similarly badass Easter Bunny and very alien-looking Tooth Fairy to fight evil and save Christmas is Jack Frost's Dive to the Heart.  Err, I mean, we see -and again, we don't find out that this is what we're seeing until much later- the drowned boy floating in the frozen pond while transforming into Jack Frost.  It's a little jarring, with troubling implications indeed because of course you start wondering if all the other Guardians were real people who died horribly, which is just the kind of thing you want to think about when what you came to see was a family holiday animated feature where a badass dual-wielding Siberian Santa Claus teams up with the similarly badass Easter Bunny and very alien-looking Tooth Fairy to fight evil and save Christmas.

If it isn't obvious by now, you would be totally forgiven if you assumed that "ROTG" is about (once more, with feeling) a badass dual-wielding Siberian Santa Claus teaming up with the similarly badass Easter Bunny and very alien-looking Tooth Fairy to fight evil and save Christmas.

I know I like to call out bad marketing of animated feature films but ye gods, they screwed the pooch big time on this one.  A lot of ink, blood, and spit has been spilled over why "ROTG" was such a spectacular box office disaster but the awful, misleading ad campaign cannot be discounted, and it goes a lot deeper than, "Oh, by the way, this is actually a movie where a badass dual-wielding Siberian Santa Claus teams up with the similarly badass Easter Bunny and very alien-looking Tooth Fairy to fight evil and save Easter.  In this movie released to theaters in America during Christmastime.  Oops."  They barely acknowledged that the film focuses on the blandest character of the lot and therefore is actually about the rise of just one Guardian.  And for God's sake, in the year of our lord 2012, why would you ever make that "Who let the elves out?!?" TV spot? 

So about that "saving Easter" aspect.  I know I went off on the part where Jack's been dead the whole time but really the scene that sums up everything I found wrong with "ROTG" is the scene where they try to save Easter. It's going to take some setup, so here's the larger plot, with brief tangents: A very unusual alternate interpretation of Santa Claus learns that this evil guy named Pitch is threatening the children of the world, so he enlists the help of other unusual versions of folklore characters to save them.

For some reason, this sounds familiar.

Unfortunately for us, "ROTG" is not going to be nearly as fascinatingly bizarre, and is going to be played painfully straight besides.  More importantly, the characterizations of the various Guardians never really go much deeper than "Santa's from Siberia and he's got tattoos and swords and an army of Sasquatches!  Isn't that COOL?!?  It's cool, right?  Please, please, kids, tell us you think that's cool..."  (I don't want to harp too hard on the celebrity voices but for reasons that are unclear, Santa Claus also has the voice of Alec Baldwin.  Because of course you'd cast Alec Baldwin as Santa Claus.  Why wouldn't you?  We all know how much Alec Baldwin likes children, right?)  The Guardians all look cool and interesting, but that's it.  I may still love the Tooth Fairy's design (Yo.  CGI animators.  I don't want to hear another word from any of you about how feathers are "too hard" or "look dumb".) but there's nothing about her character that's truly unique.

On the subject of the Tooth Fairy, there's also the little matter of the reason given why she collects teeth and why the villain wishes to steal them.  For some reason, that also sounds familiar, and in a way that is frankly a lot less easy to forgive.

Anyway, as unusual as they appear, the Guardians aren't very interesting characters.  So when I say that Jack is the least interesting out of all of them, it's pretty impressive.  I was not for a moment kidding when I called Jack Frost every unimaginative boy-protagonist of every forgettable role-playing game.  (It is also an observation I cannot in good conscious take full credit for.)  He's got the mysterious past that he's desperate to remember, incredible elemental powers that he does not fully understand, and an overwhelming obsession with finding a family to belong to.  All he's missing are the dozens of belts and zippers.  The film, incidentally, has not a moment to spare on how the other Guardians came to find their calling and their place in the larger group, which is a damn shame because not only does the film appear to be assuming "It's Santa, except now he's BFFs with Bigfoot for some reason" is enough setup for the audience to go on, but who wouldn't be interested in learning how Santa and Bigfoot became BFFs? Surely we can sacrifice one of the useless scenes with the real world children for that, right?

We will get to those real world children in a bit, but getting back to the plot.  The Guardians need Jack Frost to join their team to defeat Pitch for reasons that are, frankly, baffling.  Because design-wise and powers-wise, Pitch is clearly the evil counterpart to the Sandman.  They even acknowledge that in the script, which makes things even more awkward.  You'd be forgiven for almost forgetting that Sandman is even involved in this misadventure, by the way, because for huge swathes of the movie, he isn't.  Anyway, once Sandman's gone, they try their hardest to make Pitch and Hoodie McFrostedhair direct antagonists, going so far as to giving Pitch an honest-to-God "We're not so different, you and I" speech.  Yes, in this movie where (one more for the road) badass dual-wielding Siberian Santa Claus teams up with the similarly badass Easter Bunny and very alien-looking Tooth Fairy to fight evil and save Christmas Easter, the evil villain gives a "we're not so different, you and I" speech. This is a thing that happens in this movie.  That's how imaginative this movie is, once they're past the part where badass dual-wielding Siberian Santa Claus teams up with the similarly badass Easter Bunny and very alien-looking Tooth Fairy to fight evil and save Easter.  If you'll pardon me, I need to go get a beer.

So as far as the villain of this here picture, now that I've mentioned him.  The most you need to know about Pitch is (a) Jude Law is one of maybe two or three voice actors who had any fun with their role and I just wish they'd all been in a better-written movie, (b) concept artist Shane Prigmore desperately wanted the character to "not be just a guy in a suit" and created some awesomely creepy designs for the character, who finally arrived onscreen as... a guy in a suit, and (c) his motivation for ruining everything for both the Guardians and the children of the world.  Pitch, the embodiment of childhood fears and nightmares, is jealous of the Guardians because they are more popular than he is among the children of the world.  Yup.

But it really all comes down to the scene where they try to save Easter, doesn't it?  This particular sequence of events starts when an adorable little girl...

Actually, there are tons of adjectives I could use on the various real world children in this film but trust me, "adorable" isn't one of them.  You know what's a more appropriate one?  Horrifying.  Like, there's Uncanny Valley and then there's this.  All of their designs are deeply unpleasant, but the little girl in particular looks like she'd be happier haunting the sh*t out of people in a J-horror movie.  It's the hair.  It does not look like anything that has ever grown out of the skin of a healthy mammal.  It looks like spaghetti.  She has legit al dente spaghetti hair.  And it's so thick and lumpy and unnatural that it takes a while for it to be clear that, yes, they actually did bother to render her other eye.  In eleven years we've gone from Boo to... this.

Still, the Guardians act like this little girl is adorable when they see that she has wandered into Easter Bunny's lair (because convoluted plot reasons, that's why), and Bunny lets her help get all the eggs and treats ready for Easter morning.  And this scene is legitimately sweet, partially because Hugh Jackman is one of the other voice actors who's having any fun here and partially because, if it's not clear by now, this is one of the prettiest badly-written animated features of all time.  Anyway, Bunny sends all the little eggs off through the magical tunnels to hide themselves in the real world...

...and Pitch sends his minions down those same tunnels to smash each and every one of those eggs.  <:(

Thus, the whole sequence where a child character the same age of the children who'd most enjoy a movie where Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny hang out and do awesome stuff together actually gets to hang out and do awesome stuff with them herself turns out to be a shaggy dog story.  Ho ho ho, kids.  Easter is now ruined forever.  (For certainly, technicolor hard boiled eggs are the one most very important aspect of Easter, but ye guardians let us not even START on the fantastic religious weirdness in this movie.  Let us also not even discuss the fact that these Guardians who protect the children all over the world are the folklore characters beloved by American children -- yet there's one scene where they acknowledge one of the equivalent folklore characters from a different culture, which is actually more awkward than if they'd ignored the issue altogether.)  The Guardians are basically rendered powerless and put all the blame on Jack because... because there needs to be a scene where everybody yells at the new guy for f*cking everything up, I suppose.  Because, again, that's how imaginative this movie is.

I am willing to bet you can guess how everything goes from here on out.  Jack goes off to be Emo by himself, gets to listen to Pitch's "we're not so different..." spiel, and learns that he was once a little boy who died.  Blah blah blah, he goes back to rally the one child left in the world who believes in the Guardians.  And no, it is not the little girl who got to hang out and paint eggs with them literally just a couple of scenes ago.  It's her older brother, who had a much briefer encounter with the Guardians way earlier in the movie.  It'd be wonderful if a little girl got to lead the charge in the upcoming Kids Save The Day (all rights reserved to the 1990's) finale for a change of pace wouldn't it, but no dice.  Hope you little girls out in the audience understand, and that the end of this movie prepares you for a lifetime of similarly disappointing and subliminally sexist fiction.

So anyway, Jack rallies the children and in doing so levels up to evolve into a truly beloved folklore character believed in by all the children everywhere I guess?  Anyway, the kids help the other Guardians get their powers back through the power of childhood belief or whatever.  I have to say, I was deathly afraid that this would devolve into yet another damn "faith vs. skepticism" children's film and thank the gods it doesn't.  Heck, if anything it's pro-empirical evidence; you see, it's pretty hard not to believe in Santa Claus when he's right there kicking ass right in front of you.  They fight Pitch, Sandman comes back (because more convoluted plot reasons), Pitch is eaten by his minions(!?), Jack becomes a full Guardian, and the kids return to their homes in an admittedly hilarious mid-credit sequence.

In closing -and yeezus, this is a long review- "Rise of the Guardians", for all it's many many flaws, is still definitely worth a rental.  For many of the same reasons "Spirit", "Ferngully", and even Disney's "Dinosaur" are worth a rental: it's really pretty.  A lot of effort was put into the visuals here and it shows.  If only the screenplay had the imagination to back those awesome visuals up.

But the thing is, as much as I personally didn't like the movie, I can appreciate this aspect of it: They TRIED.

Look, we're in the middle of a summer where most of the big animation studios are playing it really safe.  (I know making fun of the next movie in Dreamworks' slate is just about the laziest thing you can do nowadays, bu have you seen the commercials for "Turbo"?  Particularly the ones where they assure us that the snail whose only dream is to go fast gets to go fast?)  The producers of "Rise of the Guardians" tried their damndest to do something very unusual, something not made for literally everybody.  I can appreciate that.

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Sketch of the Day! If we learn anything from this movie, it's that every girl loves unicorns.

7.10.13 Sketchbook Page

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