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.
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.
Not 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.
It 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.
Instead of doing lots of individual, short news articles I figured I’d gather all the animation news and trailers from round the web that I find, and shove them into one article from time to time and add my opinion on it, too, so it isn’t exactly the same thing that you read everywhere else.
Here’s an exciting piece of news. The director of Aardman’s superb festive film Arthur Christmas wants to launch a new animation studio in the UK. According to this article by Den of Geek, Sarah Smith is looking into a CG animation studio for these fair isles to rival box office giants Pixar, Dreamworks and Sony. Smith says that “We have an amazing special effects industry here, who do very high end work at good prices. We have a lot of children’s literature. I think it’s possible to put it together, but it’s difficult, because it’s an ambitious thing to do in the UK, when much of the film industry is run on fairly small scale lines.” So it sounds like, at this stage, it’s still very much an idea and not an actuality, but I can’t help but be enthusiastic about this.
Britain has such a rich history of story tellers, and our children’s literature is, as Smith points out, a varied, imaginative canon, packed with great novels, plays and poems. The thought of merging these with animation, and getting some strong home grown talent behind it, is an exciting prospect indeed. As British genre cinema is becoming increasingly successful with directors like Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish and Ben Wheatley producing critically acclaimed films, it’s about time we got properly stuck into animated cinema, too. Aardman have been holding the fort for a long time, but any new input into British animation is most welcome. My only minor qualm is the suggestion that it will be entirely CG. It is an undoubtedly successful medium, and big studios are afraid of hand drawn animation or 2D box office flops. Yet I’m always far more excited by anything done in traditional animation, so I would love to see a mixture of mediums from this potential studio. As it is, it doesn’t exist yet, but I can’t wait to see what Smith does next.
Slightly overshadowed by behemoths such as Breaking Dawn and Skyfall, Dreamworks’ latest film Rise of the Guardians has had a modest opening box office. It’s the studio’s weakest opening weekend in years, but perhaps strong word of mouth and critical acclaim, plus the festive theme, will give it a better go at the box office in the run up to Christmas. I’m never really that fussed about Box Office figures, especially when terrible franchise entries earn over a billion worldwide, but it is surprising to see this not do so well. CG animations tend to bring in kids and, of course, parents, but perhaps they are all still going to see Wreck-It Ralph, which is still going strong in US cinemas. Regardless of how well it is doing at the box office, I can’t wait to see it this weekend when it hits the UK. Head over to www.boxofficemojo.com if you are into stats.
Finally, there’s a new trailer for Sony‘s Epic that’s been doing the rounds. I’m quite cynical about this studio, and if this film has a single song and dance routine, I’m going to be exceptionally annoyed; the talking ‘comedy’ slugs are a real worry. Yet, in spite of these concerns, Epic looks to be just that. It’s the kind of film I would have devised as a twelve year old, when I would use sticks as swords to fight my friends with, and I took up archery in my back garden. It looks wonderfully inventive, the animation is impressive, and it has the kind of fight scenes that past me (and present me, if I’m honest) would have gone absolutely nuts for. Just one thing, though: please stop casting Christoph Waltz in villain roles. He’s an immensely talented actor, he can do more than snarling German.
Last week Dreamworks Animation announced their upcoming slate and to call it busy is something of an understatement. They’ve been increasingly prolific with their output in recent years, but they have kicked it up a notch as they plan to release twelve films in four years, mostly originals with a couple of sequels and spin offs. It’s part of a new distribution deal with Fox, and whilst cynics may dismiss this as a cash grab, the variety of titles and ideas suggests that Dreamworks’ recent creative surge looks set to continue.
The future of Dreamworks Animation looks a little like this (all dates apply to the US): The Croods (March 2013); Turbo (July 2013); Mr Peabody and Sherman (November 2013); Me and My Shadow(March 2014); How To Train Your Dragon 2 (June 2014); Happy Smekday! (November 2014); The Penguins of Madagascar (March 2015); Trolls [working title] (June 2015); B.O.O.: Bureau of Otherworldly Operations (November 2015); Mumbai Musical [working title] (December 2015); Kung Fu Panda 3 (March 2016); How To Train Your Dragon 3 (June 2016)
The Chief Creative Officer for Dreamworks, Bill Damaschke, describes the announcement as “the result of the amazing work and devotion from DreamWorks Animation’s vast roster of directors, producers and artistic talent over many years.” The cast and crews they have assembled for these projects certainly look as promising as Damaschke’s enthusiasm suggests. The Croods is directed by one half of the Dragons directing team Chris Sanders, and stars Nic Cage, Ryan Reynolds and Emma Stone. Reynolds is also set to appear in Turbo, alongside Paul Giamatti and Richard Jenkins as well as many others (the newly named Snoop Lion will make an appearance). They’ll be voicing a script co-written by Robert Siegel, who wrote The Wrestler. Elsewhere, they’ve drafted in Lion King director Rob Minkoff, and voice talent as varied as Stephen Colbert and Alison Janney. These do not look like the efforts of a half-hearted studio merely wanting to rake in the cash. Snoop Lion (and perhaps Ryan Reynolds) aside, these are quality names assembled just for the first two of their long list of upcoming films. Having the names of Giamatti, Jenkins and Siegel behind your film are enough to make critics round the world uncomfortably excited.
It’s not just the talent behind them that ramp up anticipation for these films, but the ideas, too. Admittedly, there are the usual themes coming through of ‘discovering the meaning of friendship’, and more than one ‘odd couple’ scenario, but both Pixar and Dreamworks have been doing these for years and often with great success. Not only that, but there appears to be a freshness to some of the ideas that means they will hopefully rise above more standard blockbuster animations.
Most intriguing is the distant prospect of Mumbai Musical, which the Dreamworks site describes as “the studio’s first ever Bollywood-style animated musical adventure inspired by the great Indian epic tale of the Ramayana but told from the point of view of the monkeys.” It’s a premise so out-there for a mainstream animation studio, I’ll be surprised if it does actually get made.
But there’s more of interest. Me and My Shadow will combine traditional and CG animation (already something to get excited by) to tell the story of a shadow who is more adventurous than the timid boy he is attached to. There’ll undoubtedly be a standard resolution of boy and shadow working together and becoming true friends, but it sounds promising at least. The Croods will be about cavemen, and Turbo will be about a snail who dreams of racing in the Indy 500 (sounds like a premise Pixar would have once come up with). Not only that but their sequels are also part of their two best franchises, How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda. Both have displayed the studio’s capacity for stunning animation and, in Dragons in particular, telling stories with real heart. Whether The Penguins of Madagascar is entirely necessary, however, remains to be seen.
Right at the beginning of the studio, Dreamworks made a bold choice with The Prince of Egypt; for a fledgling outfit to release a children’s film about a vengeful God who, at one point, kills lots of children, was an incredibly daring move. Their second traditionally animated film covered Spanish colonialism in central America, also not an especially easy topic. This innovation seriously petered off after a while, lost in a mass of talking animals with annoying smirks, and for a long time their films made very little impact. But recently the studio has undergone something of a renaissance, as Dragons, Pandas 1 & 2 and even Madagascar 3 have received critical plaudits, and they have returned to making story and character driven films that look amazing.
With the upcoming Rise of the Guardians, which looks set to be their best yet, it is perhaps time to reassess the position of Dreamworks on the rostrum of great animation studios. They may not be the most consistent, and their tendency towards cheap pop-culture gags so frequently lets them down, but they are definitely able to make top tier animated films, and with this latest batch of films on the horizon, it seems as though things are only going to improve.