Chuck Koplinski: 'Rise of the Guardians' soars on visuals, message

When people console me for having to see every movie that comes out, even the ones that make going in for a root canal look like a more enjoyable option, I tell them that this aspect of being a film critic is not so bad. I know that if I keep my expectations low where movies like this are concerned, there are times when I will be pleasantly surprised.

Such is the case with Peter Ramsey's "Rise of the Guardians," an absolutely delightful and at times wondrous animated feature that effectively reminds us that perhaps the most precious thing that children possess is the ability to have faith and hope in the inexplicable.

Going in, I feared the worst, what with an adventure that finds Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Sandman joining forces to combat seemingly unstoppable evil. Gimme a break — is this the Fairy Tale "Avengers?" And while it does borrow some aspects from the Marvel blockbuster, at least the script by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the book by William Joyce, re-creates the best part of that entertainment, namely the way the characters initially clash but then are able to put personal issues aside to form a cohesive unit.

The individuals of the group couldn't be any more different, and it's their differing personalities that propels the film as their disparate points of view and methods generate one conflict after another. Santa (voice by Alec Baldwin) is a burly gregarious monster of a man, surely of Nordic descent, whose lumberjack arms and barrel-like chest belie the fact that he's nothing but an overgrown child. The Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) is a very large Australian rabbit with a chip on his shoulder who feels the big guy at the North Pole constantly overshadows his efforts. The Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) is joy personified, gleeful over each molar, incisor and fang she and her helpers collect and store, as they contain childhood memories that, at times, need to be tapped into. Finally, the Sandman says not a word. He lets his work do the talking and may be the most powerful of the group, as his sleep potions conquer all, and he is the dispenser of dreams.

Their very existence is threatened by Pitch (voice by Jude Law), who controls the darkness and feeds on the fear of people. Jealous that the other Guardians have brought hope and light to the world, thus causing belief in him to wane, this boogeyman begins a campaign intent on making children believe in him by causing them to lose faith in the other guardians.

Thus, he prevents teeth from being collected, turns the dreams of children into nightmares and does his best to make sure Easter eggs aren't delivered. And while this plan seems to be on the road to success, a wildcard, Jack Frost (Chris Pine), may have the power to thwart it. Irresponsible and only intent on causing turmoil, he has been told he's in line to join the Guardians' exclusive club, but he's not buying it, unwilling to give up his autonomy and unsure that he truly deserves such a title.

Ramsey does a great job combining humor, poignancy and wonder without letting any of these elements become overwhelming or cloying. Santa's workshop is a treasure trove of laughs as the brigade of clueless elves, all equipped with pointy heads and bells, pull one bonehead move after another, while his Yetis, the real toymakers, blunder about, with one of the poor hairy creatures constantly screwing up one order after another. Santa's gregarious nature is in keeping with his oversized physicality, and it's obvious Baldwin is having great fun here, employing a Germanic accent, which runs counter to the character's optimistic nature.

However, the actor delivers the film's most touching moment when he explains just what purpose he and his cohorts serve as well as the importance of fostering a sense of wonder in children. Make no mistake, he delivers a full performance here, and it's an absolute delight to hear.

Yet beneath all the astounding sights on hand (check out Santa's workshop or the dreams contained in the granular wisps the Sandman dispenses every night) is a plea to maintain a sense of hope in the world, even when all seems to be going to the dogs. Nurturing the notion that goodness can conquer all and that positive things can happen, even when things seem dire, is hardly an original sentiment. But it is one that we can't hear enough, and "Rise of the Guardians" succeeds handsomely in delivering this message with such earnestness that it may just convert some of the nonbelievers among us.

 

'Rise of the Guardians'

3 1/2 stars out of 4.

Voice cast: Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman, Jude Law, Isla Fisher and Dakota Goya.

Directed by Peter Ramsey; produced by Nancy Bernstein and Christina Steinberg; written by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the book by William Joyce.

A Dreamworks Pictures Release. 97 minutes. Rated PG (thematic elements and mildly scary action). At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

Bloated "Twilight" finale fades with a whimper.

(2 stars out of 4.)

Trite, overwrought and just plain silly, the "Twilight" saga mercifully comes to an end with "Breaking Dawn, Part 2," a movie plagued by a snail-like pace, far too many unintentional laughs and a tone that suggests that all involved have tired of the affair and have no problem joining the long list of those who have been parodying the franchise from the beginning.

Picking up a few hours (I think?) after the conclusion of Part 1, which saw the ever-expressive Bella (Kristen Stewart) survive one of the most grisly births on record, she is now becoming attuned to her new vampire powers. She discovers that tracking game to slake her bloodlust is fun, and finally being able to have "fun time" with her new hubby Edward (Robert Pattinson) over and over without getting tired is the fringiest of fringe benefits.

However, watching over their new daughter Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy) takes priority, and these newlydeads have a problem on their hands. Seems the Volturi, the vampire ruling council led by Aro (Michael Sheen), think that the newborn, being half human and half vampire, will eventually pose a threat to them, so they gather an army and set off to find out whether this is so, ready to kill the girl if need be. Meanwhile, Bella and Edward do the same, amassing those of the undead with special powers as allies, among them the werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner) who has a unique bond with Renesmee.

It sure is difficult treating all of this seriously, and there's more than a few moments when you can see that the cast had the same problem. To be sure, it's hard to deliver much of the awkwardly written lines with any sort of conviction, but there are times when you can sense they had given up all hope and decided to have a little fun with just how wooden the dialogue is. However, Sheen knows how ridiculous this all is, and instead of fighting it, he gives himself over to it. When Aro finally meets Renesemee, listen to his reaction as he laughs, chortles and cackles with glee and admiration. The actor's mindset seems to be that if you're going to go down in flames, you might as well be the brightest.

While Twi-Hards are taking some exception to the film's climax (it's not this way in the book!), it is the highlight of this affair. The massive battle between the undead, werewolves and various mutants is entertaining in a slowing-down-to-see-a-car-wreck kind of way, as one vampire after another has its head ripped off and then set on fire, which only lends credence to the notion that those on the rating board turned a blind eye and ended up with lined pockets to give this one a PG-13.

After the seemingly endless posturing that occurs in this film, as well as the entire series, what we're left with is a bloated, empty affair that, regrettably, bears more than a passing resemblance to the audience that embraced it. Superficial to the extreme and with the depth of a puddle, the legacy of this franchise is that its success ensures that even more vacuous "tween-centric" series are on their way, breeding more lazy film-goers who are undead in their own frightening way.

A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow him on Twitter at @CKoplinski. He can also be reached at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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