(Christmas) Movie Review: Rise of the Guardians

Jack Frost was nimble, Jack Frost was quick; Jack Frost froze the world with his stick.

Yes, I know: It’s a mixing of disparate bits of culture and childhood lore, kind of catchy and not quite right. And in that, it’s like Rise of the Guardians.

Rise of the Guardians was released into theaters around Thanksgiving, and released onto DVD just before Easter. It is, indeed, another holiday movie, and like so many holiday movies, Santa is a character. But this is a Russian Santa. With Yetis. And the movie is not really about him anyway.

It’s about Jack Frost. Free, irresponsible, spreading fun, spreading mischief, leaving messes in his wake, always unseen; nobody believes in Jack Frost. The Guardians know he exists, but they don’t really know who he is. To be fair, he has only a poor idea himself.

I must say this about the movie: It was nice to experience a story about Jack Frost. I had never before seen Jack Frost slated any role, let alone that of hero. To me the idea was fresh, and they made him a character both charming and touching. His style is in vogue: cool, ironic, an edge of bitterness. But from the beginning there’s a palpable yearning, and a certain warmth toward the children he leads on wild snow days. Backstory often fails to live up to its own foreshadowing, but Jack’s doesn’t. It is pitch-perfect, full of emotion without angst, and it truly makes sense of what Jack is and why.

Rise of the Guardians has two great strengths. The first is their ability to unite different pieces of childhood stories and so cast a new light on all of them. To create a story with Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, and the boogeyman is to create a world large enough to contain them.

The second strength is the personalities of the Guardians and their delinquents, Pitch-Black and Jack Frost. Pitch is, essentially, an inversion of the Guardians – an interesting and softly menacing character. (A lot of the credit for this goes to the actor, who played him like velvet – soft and black.) The Guardians, though all abundantly well-meaning, are a little … wonky, somewhere between offbeat and mildly neurotic.

Despite all that it does right, Rise of the Guardians is hobbled by a sense of not being quite big enough. This comes partially from the oddly limited way in which the Guardians responded to the boogeyman. They showed no degree of strategy and – energetically but, on consideration, unjustifiably – ran around plugging up leaks where they should have been thinking how to dam the river.

The story’s conception of the Guardians, like its use of them, was sometimes limited, and this also fostered a hazy sense of smallness. Most of what the makers did with the Easter Bunny and Santa rise guardiansClaus and so forth was fun, and the way they brought these childhood legends together was coherent and interesting. But it wasn’t grand. The story had one piece of really excellent mythos; what it did with the Man on the Moon was mythical, worthy of a fairytale. The makers, however, failed to expand this piece of mythos. The movie as a whole would have been elevated if some of the generic “belief” had been replaced with the mystery and purpose of the Man on the Moon.

Rise of the Guardians missed some of its opportunities, but it is still a good movie. The animation and the acting were both superbly done, the characters were creative and endearing, the story held interest and humor and even heart. And the value of Rise of the Guardians is even greater when you remember that a good movie is hard to find.

Review: Arthur Christmas

Arthur’s heart was in the right place; it was his feet that usually weren’t. He wasn’t quite harmless – certainly not to the elves he routinely tripped over, whose home he once accidentally melted.

But he meant well.

Arthur Christmas is a story of Santa, his wife, his father, and his two sons. If you ever wondered how Santa Claus could visit every child in the world in one night, here’s your answer. If you ever wanted to see the intersection of a military operation, a mega-corporation, and a fairy tale, here’s your chance.

There is not much unique in the premise or themes of Arthur Christmas. We’ve all seen the modernistic re-take on old cultural standbys, from Santa to superheroes to the monsters beneath our childhood beds. We’ve seen many stories of Santa, stories of misfits at the North Pole, stories about saving Christmas and learning its spirit.

But the ideas are still good, and at any rate Christmas is not the best playing field for originality. God wrote the Christmas story, and our own stories are meant to catch echoes of His – even if only in a dim note of hope or good cheer.

As expected as the ideas of Arthur Christmas are, there is some freshness in the execution. The Claus family passing down the position of Santa from one generation to the next is new, and the movie draws a lot from it. In many ways Arthur Christmas is a film about family. There’s a fine-edged realness to the portrayal; we see their love, and the complexity of hurt and longing that too often grows up around love.

Arthur Christmas also makes a striking variation to the saving-Christmas theme. Here Christmas Eve came off with brisk efficiency … except for one small glitch. Out of a billion or so gifts, one was missed. One child was missed. Arthur’s urgent, flailing effort was for one child.

And by exchanging the generalization of children for the reality of a child, Arthur Christmas adds power to the story. Arthur’s mission is that much more poignant, his heart that much bigger. Anyone at the North Pole would have moved heaven and earth for all the children of the world. But Arthur, like the shepherd leaving his ninety-nine to search for the one lost, did it for one child, whose name he knew.

Arthur Christmas is a lighthearted story, most of it fun and funny. But it had its moments of tenderness and seriousness, enough to give another depth to the film. If you, like me, keep a list of Christmas viewing, Arthur Christmas deserves to be added.