Now that Rise of the Guardians has taken its place among the most expensive feature animation box office failures of all time, the post-mortems begin. As usual, an analysis of a film’s pluses and minuses depends a lot on the motives and values of the person doing the job. Studio heads will be looking for weaknesses in the tried-and-true formulas that worked in previous movies. Screenwriters will see weak story structure where the Animation Directors may not. There will not be a shortage of opinion. That being the case, I want to offer mine.
Conclusion first: The culprit here is, once again, money. The budget for Rise of the Guardians was north of US$160 million and, in order to justify that expense, the creative team attempted to stretch the appeal of the story across too wide a demographic range. If they had started out with an intact and viable story, and then budgeted to tell that story in the most economical way, we would not now be poking around in the cinematic grave yard.
A quick glance at RottenTomatoes.com shows that the general public liked it more than the critics. And the critics for major organizations liked it less than critics overall. Browse twenty or thirty of the reviews, as I did before writing this, and certain aspects of the film float to the top , the primary one being Santa Claus’ depiction as what looks like a member of the Russian mafia. I searched in vain for any explanation at all about that creative choice. In all the PR interviews, the question of Santa’s Russian accent is raised, and no one on the creative team seems willing to take credit. Alex Baldwin deflects the question with, “What accent?”
It would love to have access to DreamWorks’s marketing scheme for Rise of the Guardians. Given the cast of characters, I presume they were leaning heavily on acceptance by audiences in North America. If that is the case, and if they wanted to stretch the canvas to cover “the entire family”, a Russian, tatted Santa makes no sense because North American children will have the Coca-Cola, “Night Before Christmas” Santa model in their heads. This Russian fellow would quite possibly alienate and bewilder little kids therefore. Parents who might normally take their kids to see a Santa movie will put on the brakes once word gets around that the kids are having nightmares after seeing it.
Director, Peter Ramsey, said this in an interview: “We didn’t want to make a satire, parody, or be edgy for the momentary sake. I thought that would’ve been another way of laughing at the characters, like, “Oh, look, they’re badasses now! That’s so cool!” It’s a movie for kids to go see and enjoy. The thing is, a lot of the same guys who think that way believed in Santa and those characters as kids. I think there’s enough of that stuff in the movie where a wide range of people can enjoy it.”
Read between the lines and you can feel the demographic canvas being stretched to the tearing point. The director is saying he wanted a movie that was all things to all people, a goal that suggests maybe Jeffrey Katzenberg should have hired a more experienced director. Hollywood has many dues-paying canvas-stretchers looking for work, know what I mean?
Now listen to what William Joyce was trying to do. His “Guardian” books are the basis for the film, and he was co-producer of the movie, presumably to assure the movie stays true to the books. But here is Mr. Joyce: "Because I don't want people to read the book and then go see the movie and go, 'Oh, I like the book better,' and I also didn't want them to know what happens in the movie. And I also knew that during the progress of film production, a lot of things can change. So I wanted to have a sort of distance, so we were able to invoke the books and use them to help us figure out the world of the movie, but I didn't want them to be openly competitive to each other.”
Say what? All I am hearing is a lot of what he wants the movie not to be. That is unfortunate because William Joyce is a born storyteller and a very good one. He usually tells stories for shamanistic reasons, because the tribe can use the help. Maybe he is simply out of his element in a Hollywood movie studio where the primary concern is boosting the stock so the investors will be happy. Nobody in the big studios really cares much about what the tribe might need for survival in a conflicted world. Instead, they are competing to see who can get the tribe to spend the most money.
The American feature animation industry is at a tipping point. Budgets cannot go much higher, and the big studios are not going to lower them. There will be no returning to the days of “Toy Story” or “Peter Pan”. When projects are considered for development, the primary consideration is their commercial potential. Story is secondary. We are poised for a new generation of feature animation studios that will begin with story and craft the budget to fit that rather than the other way around. Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli operate on a pretty good production model. He makes a movie when he has a movie to make, not when the studio assembly line demands. I read someplace that “Spirited Away” cost the equivalent of US$30 million to make. That is probably in the ballpark in which the producers of Rise of the Guardians should have been playing.