‘Guardians’ rises above limits of animated films

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In the opening scene of DreamWorks’ newest animated release, “Rise of the Guardians,” an adolescent floats in icy-cold water as a melancholy voiceover tells of his mysterious origin. It almost doesn’t feel like a children’s movie but a surreal, existential universe.

When the Danny Phantom-esque boy flies out of the water, his translucent skin, amazingly delicate veins adorning his hands and silver hair softly bristling in the cold wind are exceptionally visually striking. This birthlike scene introduces Jack Frost, the handsome teenager who uses his powers to manipulate blizzards and icicles.

If the opening scenes aren’t indicative of an evolution in animated film, the shaken-up physical appearances of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman and Jack Frost are. The machete-wielding, tattooed, Russian Santa leads the Guardians, made up of an Australian iron-pumping Easter Bunny; a mute, dwarflike Sandman; a peacock-hued, avian-looking Tooth Fairy and the now hoodie-clad Jack Frost. When Boogeyman Pitch Black returns to Earth threatening to turn all childrens’ dreams into nightmares, the Guardians need a new partner to help them fight.

These aesthetic decisions were anything but taken lightly by director Peter Ramsey. Even though he only recently made his directorial debut with the TV movie “Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space” in 2009, he has an extensive artistic storyboard background that clearly influenced his most recent work.

Ramsey’s decisions were made in close collaboration with William Joyce, writer of “The Guardians of Childhood” series, off of which the film is based. But the writer and director chose to stray from the 13-book series, setting the film hundreds of years later and freeing themselves from feeling an obligation toward textual accuracy.

Ramsey’s modifications to the world of the Guardians stand out the most in the movie’s majestic settings.  The Easter Bunny’s underground lair is a lush paradise filled with giant totem eggs as the protection for the pastel hard-boiled eggs that pad along on their little feet through the grass. For Ramsey, the rabbit’s burrow below the rugged Outback completes “the idea that there is life even in the most unlikely places, and the Easter Bunny is the one who protects that,” he said in a round-table interview.

Bunny, just like the other characters, has a way of traveling through time instantaneously, whipping the story back and forth in a frenzy of action and adventure. Ramsey said he wanted to design the movie for those who “really likes superhero movies or action movies.” But Ramsey adds to the one-dimensionality of the action genre by including the nostalgic, tender factor that the characters embody.

But what Ramsey wishes viewers to really understand is that the Guardians’ protective powers would be nothing without the kids who believe in them. This is the main problem that Jack Frost faces as the protagonist, as he needs kids to believe in him for him to become a true guardian. “It’s about finding whatever is special inside of you and sharing that with the world that creates belief.”

Ramsey makes a clear distinction between his use of these characters in comparison to their depictions in the past. “We wanted to take very seriously the fact that people do believe in (figures like the Guardians). As much fun or as light as it is sometimes, it’s kind of built on pretty serious ideas,” he said. This perhaps is why the film is more mature and has a message beyond just entertainment for kids. Adults as well can view the film with nostalgia and a childhood spirit that isn’t as accessible anymore.

Big stars help to make the film attractive to older audiences as well. The strong personalities associated with each character pair perfectly with the voice talent of Chris Pine as Jack, Isla Fisher as Tooth, Alec Baldwin as Santa, Hugh Jackman as Bunny and Jude Law as the villain, Pitch Black.

The character development leaves none of the iconic children’s characters out, and each has his or her moment to shine. In fact, Ramsey says one of the biggest challenges was “not to let any of the characters fade into the background.” This makes no clear favorite character (though he notes that Santa is especially popular), because “everybody gets their moment, (and) that’s when they become a favorite character.”

At first, Jack Frost doesn’t seem like he will be a favorite character, because we have seen him as villainous in past depictions. As the film goes by, however, we see that Frost, as the outsider, offers an effective approach. Ramsey explained that the film “needed a character that the audience could experience the Guardians for the first time along with … (and) that he has to eventually rise to the occasion and become one of them himself.”

This theme of coming-of-age and fitting in is perhaps what resonates most with the film, as both Frost and Pitch Black battle to be acknowledged. The question of whether each character would put his or her fate in the hands of the children of the world is the dividing factor, when both characters just want to be believed in. The desire to be noticed reverberates with any audience, with Ramsey adding that “everybody knows how it is not to be noticed or not to be seen or heard.” To watch even the characters who have supernatural powers struggle with that concept leaves viewers of all ages affected and reminded that even the smallest possess power.

Contact A.J. at [email protected]