Reporting from AFI Fest 2012 presented by Audi
As a child of the ’70s and ’80s, I grew up on those classic, Rankin/Bass animated holiday specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. In fact, one of my favorite Christmas songs is “I’m Mr. Heat Miser.” So to me, Santa Claus is supposed to sound a lot like Mickey Rooney.
Imagine my surprise to hear Santa talk with a thick Russian accent. And, for him to have a forearm of tattoos that read “Naughty” on one arm and “Nice” on the other. This is definitely a Santa for the 21st Century.
This new twist on Santa Claus is a part of DreamWorks Animation’s new holiday-themed movie, Rise of the Guardians. The Guardians in question are Santa (voiced by Alec Baldwin, sounding like Jack Donaghy by way of Vladimir Putin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman getting to sport his native Australian accent), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), and the Sandman (voiced by nobody, since the Sandman doesn’t speak). These iconic characters are like the childhood Avengers, banding together to protect the children of the world.
The entry point of the story is Jack Frost (Chris Pine), who has been controlling winter weather and causing snow days for 300 years. Jack is good-natured and free-spirited, but he’s alone in the world and desperately desires a sense of family. He’s so alone that he’s invisible to children.
Jack is chosen to join the Guardians because the Boogeyman (named Pitch and voiced by Jude Law) is plotting to . . . well, honestly, I’m not exactly sure what his plan was. I just know that it involved spreading fear and nightmares and causing children to stop believing in the Guardians, which would, in turn, rob them of their powers. From a writing standpoint, it didn’t make much sense, but I didn’t much care.
Because Rise of the Guardians is rousing family entertainment.
I’ll get to the voice cast in a few, but first let me congratulate director Peter Ramsey and his crew for making a film that is simply gorgeous. As critics, we throw the phrase “visually stunning” around quite a bit more than we should, but it really does apply here. I’ve often found some of the DreamWorks movies not so great to look at (As much as I liked How to Train Your Dragon, I genuinely disliked the designs of the dragons themselves.), but Rise of the Guardians was one of the most beautiful movies this year. It is, well, visually stunning.
The voice cast is uniformly good. I really like Chris Pine as an actor, and he brings a vulnerability and depth to Jack that works nicely. There’s a scene near the end where (SPOLIER ALERT!) a child is finally able to see Jack that got my eyes a little moist. And, a flashback scene that gives us Jack’s origin was also deeply moving for me.
And, since Santa is from the North Pole, the Russian accent makes a lot of sense. Baldwin sounds like he’s having the time of his life voicing St. Nick.
Like most movies aimed at kids, Rise of the Guardians has a clear message about finding out the essence of who you are and how that’s vital to the life you’ll wind up leading. It’s a good message, and it’s well told in the film.
And, credit first-time director Peter Ramsey for really letting it rip with the 3D here. If we’re going to have 3D (and it looks like 3D is here to stay for the foreseeable future), then let’s allow 3D to be awesome. I’m tired of this “we want the 3D effect to be subtle and not take you out of the movie” business. I want 3D to be spectacular, and Ramsey has really cranked it up to 11. Part of the fun of going to the movies is seeing something spectacular, and dialing down the 3D so you don’t even need the glasses doesn’t make any sense.
This is the best 3D movie since Hugo last year.