There they are, lined up left to right – the dream team, the creative powerhouse behind DreamWorks’ latest, ‘let’s leave out the snark this time’ animated feature Rise of the Guardians. They’re bookended on one side by executive producer Guillermo del Toro and on the other by William Joyce, the creative genius/illustrator whose Guardians of Childhood books serve as the movie’s foundation.
There’s a few folks inbetween – we’ll get to them in a while – but first let me predict that Guardians is guaranteed a Best Animated Feature Oscar slot, and in spite of some fierce competition this year has an excellent shot at taking the little gold man home.
The film is based on a series of books by William Joyce, a writer/illustrator whose deliciously glossy, whimsical retro-future style has sparked films like Robots, Meet the Robinsons and his Oscar-winning The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.
The film’s premise: childhood fantasy characters team up to fight bad guy Pitch Black’s plan to destroy kids’ belief in their very existence. The movie’s primary character arc belongs to Jack Frost, a hoodie-wearing young hotshot: not only is the go-it-alone Jack bummed by his lack of a rep, his secret origin is a secret even to himself.
As with most animated features these days, an assortment of celebrity names highlights the credits. (Here’s a fun game: without reading any reviews beforehand, try to guess which character is voiced by Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman or Jude Law.) Joyce’s original character designs have gone through more than a bit of evolution on their way to the screen but still sparkle: Russian-accented Santa sports ‘naughty’ and ‘nice’ tats on his huge forearms, cherubic sandman (no relation to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman) wields a nasty whip when necessary, feathery Tooth Fairy (who most resembles her printed page self) is easy on the eye and muy macho Easter Bunny (no Thumper, he) has already been given the Rule 34 treatment online. There is a Gaiman vibe in the movie however: the saturnine, shadowy villain Pitch Black, who sports an intriguingly granular yet rock-hard texture could have stepped out of the pages of one Gaiman’s comic book stories.
The film's screening (courtesy of the New York branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) has just come to an end and it’s time for the main event: that superstar panel.
Bracketed by the hefty del Toro and the professorial Joyce are composer Alexandre Desplat (who with Guardians, Argo and Moonrise Kingdom is having a 2012 John Williams could only dream about), director Peter Ramsey, scripter David Lindsay-Abaire, and producers Nancy Bernstein and Christine Steinberg. Joyce tells us the entire concept for his Guardians book series was his daughter’s only-a-kid-could-ask question, “does Santa Claus know the Easter Bunny?” Working on the film was “an amazing collaboration,” he adds, “like getting paid for the best days of recess.” del Toro echoes Joyce’s enthusiasm for the collaboration: “Being at DreamWorks is the best job I’ve ever had – it’s high school as it should have been, without the jocks, assholes and teachers.”
According to Lindsay-Abaire, the film’s is about “hope vs. despair – big emotions…the various supporting characters are ornaments on a [Christmas] tree; I was in charge of the tree.” The scripter was also in charge of the song accompanying the film’s closing credits, penning the lyrics to “Still Dream,” a heartfelt, operatic throwback to a time before rock music took over movie soundtracks. (“We all cried for an hour when we first heard the song,” producer Steinberg tells the audience.) “Our biggest fear,” Lindsay-Abaire adds “was a mega-dance remix at the film’s end.”
Ramsey extols Guardians subtle yet “immersive” 3D (which for the most part avoids in-your-face gags in favor of enhancing its huge interior settings with a tangible depth). He addresses DreamWorks’ reputation for snarky storytelling, an attitude subsequently adopted by other studios: “People wind up thinking every animated film has a wise-cracking sidekick and someone going ‘aw-kward.’ We’re following in the footsteps of How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda. For the last four or five years the studio has made a concerted effort to broaden the kind of movies it makes. Everybody at DreamWorks loves heartfelt movies, wants to make great movies.”
Joyce seconds Ramsey’s emotions: “Different studios wanted to make the film… some wanted to do it in live-action. Jeffrey [Katzenberg] told me ‘we’ll make the film the way you want, we want it to be epic, romantic and all that. We have to change – we can’t just keep making the same movie over and over again.’”