Perry Chen reviews Rise of the Guardians and interviews William Joyce and Peter Ramsey.
How would you feel if you are invisible, and not believed to be real? Jack Frost (Chris Pine), a boy with silvery hair, blue hoodie, and a mysterious past, is the main character of the new DreamWorks animation “Rise of the Guardians” which opened on Nov 21, 2012. In one of my favorite early scenes of the film, Jack creates all of the snow and frost in dazzling patterns in the winter with his magical staff, flying around like a leaf in the wind, but is invisible to all humans. He knows only his name, but not his past or purpose in life.
The Guardians, however, bring wonder and joy to children everywhere, and are loved by all. They are the Sandman, Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), and the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher). But, Pitch (Jude Law), the tall, shadowy Boogeyman clad in a black, wispy robe, has plans to make the children of the world live in fear and stop believing in hope and dreams. After gathering all together, the Guardians are told by the Man in the Moon that Jack Frost is chosen as a new guardian. But Jack, accustomed to being a rebel without responsibility, is not that enthusiastic to become a Guardian. Together, Jack and the Guardians must put their differences aside to save the children of the world.
“Rise of the Guardians” is a great film, full of rich, colorful, and well-developed characters. Santa, or “North”, as he is called in the film, compared his personality to that of a Russian Nesting Doll. He is a tough and fierce warrior on the outside, but inside, he has a heart of childlike wonder. Bunny is calm and proud, although annoyed by North boasting how Christmas is more important than Easter. Tooth, the tooth fairy, is an energetic and excitable character, constantly hovering in the air. Sandy, the mute Guardian of Dreams is calm, but can be very fierce and strong when he has to. Finally, we have Jack Frost, a smart, mischievous, fun-loving spirit who can control the weather and snow, but has yet to learn about his purpose and responsibilities in life.
I am amazed at how executive producer William Joyce, director Peter Ramsey, and their team transformed the well-known childhood legends and fairy tales into fresh, new, and interesting characters. Mr. Joyce is also the Oscar-winning director of the 2011 animation short “The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore,” and author of the “Guardians of Childhood” book series that the film is loosely based on. I interviewed him and his “Morris Lessmore” co-director Brandon Oldenburg at the ShortsHD Shorts Awards, two days before they won the Oscar.
I had the great privilege to interview William Joyce again about “Rise of the Guardians” and his Guardians book series which were inspired by his then young daughter’s question to him, “Do Santa and Tooth Fairy know each other?” I asked him why he chose DreamWorks among all the animation studios for this film, he said, “Dreamworks is the only one that wanted to do the movie the way I wanted to do it, based on the series of books, with the movie taking place some 200 hundred years after the books.” He created the characters and their background stories with influences from the Greek mythology, Native American mythology, Celtic mythology, and even James Bond movies and its star Sean Connery for the character of Santa Claus! The Tooth Fairy character was inspired by the first animation feature film “The Adventures of Prince Achmed,” an amazing 1926 German film with cutouts silhouette.
Santa, the holly jolly chubby Christmas Saint is transformed into a fierce, determined, muscular sword-wielding warrior. His workshop is full of tiny mischievous elves and massive yetis. Plus, he’s Russian. The Easter Bunny is changed from a cuddly animal into a 7 foot tall boomerang-wielding half rabbit, half man. “Bunnymund” boasts explosive egg grenades and an Australian accent, as well as a massive springtime oasis hidden under the Australian outback where millions of eggs get colored and painted each Easter, and massive stone sentinel eggs stand guard. Tooth lives in a gold and pink palace carved into the side of a mountain in Southeast Asia where tiny hummingbird-sized fairies collect children’s teeth 24/7. Teeth are collected because they contain the memories of childhood, and are stored in jeweled cases. The Sandman is a short, chubby figure with a gentle face and a robe made from his golden dreamsand who flies on his sand cloud at night, and sends tendrils of golden dreamsand into sleeping children. He expresses his feelings through pictures made of sand, as he cannot speak.
The villain Pitch, or the Boogeyman, is a tall dark man who can teleport and vanish into shadows. He devises a plan to destroy the dreams of children with his army of shadow horses called Nightmares, a play on words of “mares”, which are female horses. Finally Jack is an ageless teenage boy who can fly wherever the wind takes him and is over 300 years old. He causes trouble and mischief wherever he goes, as well as creating beautiful patterns of frost and snow.
I asked William Joyce how he created the new character Jack Frost who is the only one not in his book series, and how Jack Frost became the character that links all together. “When I first worked on the film at DreamWorks, Jeffrey Katzenberg told me to pick a character that the audience will identify with, and see the film through his eyes,” said Joyce. “We talked about a character that seems like he needs to be a guardian, but not yet a guardian. Jack Frost is one guy who doesn’t have a holiday. He doen’t have a specific job like the other fairies. Jeffrey Katzenberg said that sounds great, go with that.” Initially, Jack Frost was developed as an adult, but it was boring and didn’t work out until one day, a story artist suggested that Jack Frost be a kid, a kid who can’t grew up and gets stuck forever in a certain age. That became the Jack Frost you see in this movie, who is also Joyce’s favorite character in the film, because Jack Frost reminds him of himself. He also likes Santa a lot, and says that every character has pieces of him.
For me, my favorite character is Santa, who like me, sees wonder in everything, and has many layers and depth in his character. My second favorite character is Sandy, the Sandman, who also like me, expresses his feelings with images and pictures. Even though his vocal cords work perfectly because you can hear him snore, I wonder why he doesn’t speak even when there are no children around to be waken.
For those of us aspiring storytellers and filmmakers, Joyce gave excellence advice, “Try to keep it simple. Whatever your story is, it’s almost always about one thing. There is one character that wants something. Sometimes he knows it, sometimes he doesn’t. But always he has a hard time getting it. There is always someone in the story who doesn’t want them to get it. Once you figure out what your main character wants, and who in the story is keeping them from getting it, you can build from there.”
I also enjoyed interviewing first-time animation director Peter Ramsey at the film’s ASIFA-Hollywood screening and was thrilled to get his drawing of Jack Frost on my animation sketch book! He started out as a storyboard artist for live action films, and easily transitioned to animation films. The director has three grown children age 16 (twins) and 20 (the older one in art school now) who often gave him ideas about his films, and who loved watching “Rise of the Guardians.” I asked him how a major character came back to life in the film. He said, “I knew you were going to ask that! What happened is that once the dreamsand comes back and the children around the world started to believe again, that’s when the guardians started to get their powers back.” I won’t reveal more of the plot, you will have to watch it to find out what I am talking about!
Director Ramsey’s advice to young aspiring animators and directors is to “never stop, keep doing what you like to do, be it writing, or drawing, and learn about them as much as you can, learn about how to tell stories, that’s the most important thing.” After the ASIFA-Hollywood screening, I also met the other executive producer Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy).
The film has beautiful visual effects and looks amazing in 3D, and everything looks like it is popping out of the screen. The legendary dwelling places of the guardians are breathtaking, such as the Warren, which has various flora that produces eggs and rivers of purple dye. Also, the Tooth Palace has many ornate marble spires hanging from the ceiling and built from the ground. The mini-fairies look like little iridescent hummingbirds! Finally, North’s palace is full of inventions and toys, such as model planes that whizzed through the air.
There are some flaws in the film. I thought that, just like in Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosurs, it is hard to believe that there could be a lush green world underneath Australia, where the Easter Bunny lives with his eggs. Most importantly, I wish the ending could have been stronger, with staying power for the audience. I noticed that the filmmakers try to tie the ending with the beginning of the movie when Jack Frost was introduced. The last quote from Jack Frost about the moon at the end sounds a bit bland and weak. I would have used a more poetic, philosophical quote about dreams, hope, and belief, now that Jack Frost has gone through an amazing transformation and found his true purpose in life.
“Rise of the Guardians” is a “Perrific!” movie with rich, colorful characters, breathtaking visual effects, and an interesting storyline. I give it 4 starfish and recommend it to viewers of all ages! I predict this film to easily get nomination for both Annie Awards for Animation and the Oscars in the coming months.
Moral: When you believe in yourself, others will believe in you.
Everybody has a purpose in life, you just have to find what it is.
Don’t forget to check out William Joyce’s epic “Guardians of Childhood” series ( 2 picture books and 3 novels) before or after you watch “Rise of the Guardians,” and get your hands on a copy of the gorgeous book “The Art of Rise of the Guardian” (Forward by Alec Baldwin, Preface by William Joyce, Written by Ramin Zahed, Animation Magazine’s editor-in-chief).
Copyright 2012 by Perry S. Chen
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