Though the quirky conceit of fairytale characters/folk heroes suddenly being presented as badasses is fairly tired at this point, it persists nonetheless. From whatever number Shrek movie they’re on now, to Tangled, to the inevitable next “not-your-daddy’s-Rumpelstiltskin-Snow-White-Ginger-Bread-Man” movie, the amount of “straight” fairytales/folk tales in the cinemas surely outnumbers the “funny” ones in the minds of most contemporary children. (And maybe certain 20-somethings.)
But, while employing this trope, Rise of the Guardians manages to make it new. This is a charming and exciting movie that doesn’t just reimagine Jack Frost, The Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, et al—it makes them seem brand new.
During what was likely the worst Bolt Bus ride I’ve ever endured, I actually watched The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause in its entirety. This, I’m fairly certain, is the last time Jack Frost has appeared in a mainstream movie; played then by Martin Short. Oddly, the plot of Santa Clause 3 is fairly similar to Rise of the Guardians, insofar as it revolves around a magical character feeling under-appreciated and thus, making a weird play to take over the world and depose the other magical characters. However, Santa Clause 3 is a terrible cynical mess, while Rise of the Guardians is the real deal. This is definitely a “for the whole family” holiday movie-type product, but its got a hard-candy soul and adheres to its simple and slightly kooky premise fiercely.
Chris Pine lends his voice to Jack Frost, a reluctant hero who no one believes in. (After reloading James T. Kirk, I guess Pine only does reluctant heroes now.) Early on a group called the Guardians discovers that the Boogeyman or “Pitch” (Jude Law) is about to mess with all the children of Earth. The Guardians consist of Santa “North” Claus (complete with a Russian accent from Alec Baldwin), The Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), The Tooth Fairy or “Tooth” (Isla Fisher), and The Sandman or “Sandy,” who doesn’t speak at all. This group’s charge is to protect the children of the planet. It turns out the various holidays, giving money for teeth, and good dreams are all designed to keep children happy, and the Guardians are the thing that keeps childhood going.
But if no one believes in you, children can’t see you, and the mischievous Jack Frost hasn’t been seen by anyone for nearly 300 years.
The Peter Pan-esque theme of clap-if-you-believe-in-faeries thing is mostly what makes Rise of the Guardians work so well. Both Jack Frost, and the villain Pitch want children to believe in them. For too long no one has cared about the Boogeyman, and what does anyone know about Jack Frost other than he nips at your nose? The film uses the sort of vacuum of what Jack Frost could be and makes its own version of him. If this were a pantheon of Greek or Roman gods, Jack Frost would be the god of Childhood Mischief. Or maybe the god of Having a Laugh. He’s drawn like a hipster wizard, who’s more in touch with what being a kid is all about than the other Guardians.
And while not the focus, this heroic, the Eastern European version of Santa in the movie is totally awesome. Brandishing two swords and wielding awesome snow globes which allow him to teleport anywhere… a cooler Santa in a kid’s movie I have not seen. My favorite aspect of the Guardian version of Santa was his employment of numerous yetis to run his workshop/be his good-natured henchmen. “I thought the elves made the toys?” Jack Frost asks. “We let them think that,” North declares. It’s nearly impossible to detect Alec Baldwin’s actually voice deep down in there.
Meanwhile, I thought I was going to really hate the idea of an Australian-accented Easter Bunny, but Hugh Jackman plays so well against Chris Pine that by the end you’re dying for a live-action movie where these two constantly square off. Jude Law is perfect as the evil Boogeyman, mostly because he doesn’t do it halfway. This guy actually has a really good reason to want to take over the world; he wants to exist. And Law plays that angle expertly. Finally, no normal person will get out of this movie without having a tiny crush on Isla Fisher’s Tooth Fairy. Seriously, if this isn’t her most memorable movie since Wedding Crashers, I don’t know what is.
I won’t pretend to know a great deal about CG-animated movies that are specifically not made by Pixar, but I do know this movie had me from the first shot. A lone figure is drifting in any icy pool, clutching a weird looking staff looking dark and ominous. It’s not cutesy, not flashy, just emotive. Which is really where Rise of the Guardians works. The visuals are original takes on things a good portion of the culture is already aware of, and they’re beautiful. At no point did I feel like I was being ripped off by some overt attempt to cash in on Christmas/Easter/etc. This felt like a movie that needed to be made by all the people involved, and was written to enhance its themes, not to sell them.
Believing in yourself and valuing fun over fear sounds like easy, holiday schlock. But when it looks this good and the action and stakes are truly exciting, it’s hard to be cynical about it. By the end of the movie, every single kid believes in Jack Frost, the new Guardian, and if you’re not a total nightmare, you will too.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.