A boy floats in an underwater coffin, the light of the moon filtering through the sheet of ice that is keeping the corpse there. A voice over tells us that all he remembers at first was darkness. It’s a spellbinding, eerie opening that shows that Rise of the Guardians is a proper piece of story telling. This is not a string of cheap jokes strung together with a flimsy plot, this is a film that grabs you from the start and holds you in its thrall right until the very end. It’s also not afraid of being a little bit dark. Fear not, though, as the boy’s eyes then open and he drifts through the ice before floating into the air, caught in the moonbeams. Here we see that light can enter even the gloomiest places, and defeat darkness, thus establishing the core of the film – that ultimately hope, wonder and joy will always win out over fear. It’s an age old story of good vs evil, brought to stunning life by a cast of memorable characters and a team of immensely talented animators.

The guardians

First to clear up some plot details – the eponymous Guardians have nothing to do with the Zack Snyder animation about owls that came out a couple of years ago and nobody watched. Instead, they are the ‘Guardians of Childhood’, to use the name of the books by William Joyce; an Avengers of mythical beings that protect children all around the world. North (Alec Baldwin) is a heavily tattooed, Russian Father Christmas, Tooth (Isla Fisher) is a feathered, highly organised Tooth Fairy with an army of humming bird assistants, Bunnymund (Hugh Jackman) is a proud, boomerang carrying Easter Bunny and Sandy is a silent dream weaver who communicates through images made of golden, fluid sand. Into this titanic team up is thrown the same boy from the memorable opening sequence, who, with his shepherd’s crook, casts ice and snow in the cold parts of the world, and gives children the joy of snow days: he is, of course, Jack Frost (Chris Pine). Only, Jack doesn’t want to be a guardian, and children don’t believe that he exists. When big baddie Pitch Black/The Boogeyman (Jude Law) turns up to try and thwart the team by casting fear into children and stopping them from believing in the Guardians, Jack has to decide what he wants to be and confront many of his fears and insecurities.

This opens up the film to a richer, maturer vein of storytelling than Dreamworks have achieved before. As Pitch and Jack square up against each other, they face alternative versions of themselves: what they could have been and what they might become. There’s a standard American animation undercurrent throughout the film of finding and believing in yourself that feels a little hollow, but this is offset by first time director Peter Ramsey‘s commitment to exploring wider themes, such as our search for affirmation from others, as characterised by Jack’s constant desire to be believed in. Another key name on the credits list is executive producer Guillermo del Toro, who is perhaps responsible for a tone that, whilst still allowing for some great jokes and comedy sidekicks, has a grander scale and an occasional seriousness to it that lends weight to the storytelling. He showed in Pan’s Labyrinth that popular fairy tale characters can and should be taken seriously, an important concept for a film in which the main character is a talking rabbit.

Pitch BlackNot only that, but the voice cast is another step up for Dreamworks. Still their tendency towards big name casting has its downfalls, and Chris Pine in the lead doesn’t entirely work. Like his presence in live action films, he’s a bland cipher of an actor, bringing very little in the way of charisma or panache. Jack Frost is potentially one of the studio’s most interesting characters, both conflicted and fun, yet Pine simply doesn’t do the role justice. Elsewhere, however, the voice work is fantastic, with the particular stand out being Alec Baldwin as North. Hidden beneath a thick accent and a wonderful tendency to replace expletives with Russian composers, Baldwin is almost unrecognisable – a massive boon when wanting to make a character convincing. Jude Law remains exceptionally well spoken to play the villain, but just a hint of gravel underneath his voice, combined with the terrifying character design of Pitch, makes him a perfectly dangerous, intimidating villain.

It’s a shame, then, that the final act veers towards the cheap and the silly. When the audience has been treated to stunning action sequences of good versus evil, of giant showdowns and of trips round the world over the course of one night, it seems a shame that the film becomes reduced to schmaltz and sentimental guff by the end. The threat of the wishy-washy had been present throughout the whole film, but it was balanced by a sharp script and an engaging central concept. Sadly, it is fully embraced in the end as the children are fed the usual Hollywood nonsense of believing in the guardians, believing in themselves and generally being heroes themselves. It’s perhaps a little jarring as the message essentially says that to conquer fear they just need to believe in Father Christmas. It’s all a little sickly, which slightly ruins the atmosphere of wonder that had previously been so strong.

I chose to overlook the saccharine nature of the ending by putting my own spin on it. I’m a Christian, and I believe in a God who does actually care about us and looks out for us. Unlike Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy (SPOILERS, kids, look away now), who don’t exist and most people would agree to that fact, I believe there is evidence to suggest that God exists and there is strong historical proof that Jesus of Nazareth existed. I also believe that belief in him can cast away fear in a far more real way than belief in the sixth member of One Direction who makes things snow. This is a far more personal digression than I normally go in for with my reviews, but it will hopefully explain why I was more forgiving of a rather naff ending than most will be. If the Guardians are allegorical for different facets of God’s character, then I find it a lot easier to buy into the otherwise arbitrary message that is hammered home at the end.

TempIt is also possible to overlook this brick-subtle ending thanks to everything that preceded it being so wildly inventive and stunningly animated. From the greys and blues of the beginning scene, through the multicoloured spring landscapes of Bunnymund’s warren to the shining gold of Sandman’s dreams, Guardians is never less than visually spectacular, a gloriously rendered fantasy that uses the flexibility of animation to be both beautiful and imaginative. The star of the show is Sandy, who can create any shape that he thinks of with the sand, and so he flies in a grainy aeroplane, or he fills the town with a giant phantasmagoria of sand-animals. Pitch also gets the dark version of this, creating a huge axe out of his black ooze. With such shape shifting taking place, the action scenes are as impressive and as engaging as any live action blockbuster of this year and, in some cases, it far outstrips them, so inventive and outrageous are the set pieces.

Rise of the Guardians, therefore, marks another step up for the consistently improvingDreamworks animation studios. It’s a vibrant, funny and gorgeously animated film, and although it follows familiar patterns it does so with a verve and wit only previously seen in How To Train Your Dragon. In spite of the overdone sentimentality that plagues it towards this end, this is rich, rewarding storytelling; a family film that is evidently made with a lot of love and care. It’s an exceptional animation, beautiful to look at and far more engaging than anything the studio has done yet.

Also, the little elves were funny.

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