Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Real Wonder

Yes, I finally got around to seeing this film... I sadly missed out on it when it was playing in theaters though I had really wanted to see it. So what did I end up doing? Well, I decided to "blind buy" this film, knowing I would at least like it if it didn't turn out to be great... Let's just say I'm glad I did so. Rise of the Guardians, I believe, is DreamWorks' best film to date. You read that right, the best DreamWorks film to date...

Rise of the Guardians is easily the studio's most creative film, it's ideas are up there with the imaginative work seen in the Kung Fu Panda films and How To Train Your Dragon. Based on the book series The Guardians of Childhood by William Joyce, Rise of the Guardians tells the story of the legends we believed in growing up and what their objective is after their work is done. The guardians want the children of the world to experience joy and wonder; to believe in these mythical beings. This kind of idea may not sit well and may seem childish, but it's actually pulled off in a very convincing manner.

However, a threat rises against them. Pitch, the Bogeyman, whom they have kept contained many centuries ago, has come back. His plan is to make the children cease believing in the guardians, but to believe in him and fear. With a threat so large, the four guardians recruit a new member... Jack Frost, who is a rather mischievous type who doesn't seem to cooperate at first. The Man on the Moon choses who should be the guardians, and what we find out about the individual guardians' past-lives is briefly looked at though it leaves me wanting to learn more.

Jack Frost can't remember his past, and when it's revealed, it's a very nice twist that ultimately adds some more depth to the story. We learn more about these legends as the film progresses, but they are all very likable characters. Santa is the typical rough on the outside/soft on the inside warrior, and it might seem silly at first but you come to accept what the filmmakers have presented here. The Easter Bunny, named E. Aster Bunnymund, also has a very tough demeanor but he's really a friendly animal at heart. The Tooth Fairy's almost questionable obsession with the teeth that she and her avian fairies collect makes her a humorous character, but the best of the bunch is definitely the Sandman.

I love characters who don't speak or rarely do so. Animation history has many of them, from Dumbo to the robotic cast of WALL-E to Tom and Jerry. Sandy's way of communicating makes for some good laughs, but he's also a very interesting character because he creates virtually anything from sand whether it's a biplane to play around in or actual-sized dinosaurs. The animators come up with very creative ways to show what the character is capable of.

Of course, some might look at a trailer for this and think, "What? Tough versions of our childhood icons? That's goofy!" It may seem that way, but the animators and writers really pulled this idea off. Not once does it ever seem corny or ridiculous. When we see these guardians in action, it's actually quite exciting. The first act makes sure that you don't reject this concept early on, and it doesn't have hard time explaining all the different rules and ins and outs the guardians themselves.

So the idea is great. Is the story overall well-handled? Well, almost...

Rise of the Guardians could've used a little work in this department, because at times, the main storyline got lost thus padding out the film. It isn't a very strong story, but it's one that definitely has its heart in the right place. It has a suitable amount of emotional content, which is what a story like this needed. I really loved the themes, too. The whole idea of how children should have a sense of wonder is what the film champions. Some might think that having children believe in legends like Santa Claus is detrimental to them, while others believe that is in fact a good thing. This film pretty much is in support of the latter argument, but it's never ever heavy-handed. It's sweetly and lightly sprinkled into the film's story.

Another thing that didn't work entirely in the story was Pitch, whose background was a bit vague. He wants to make children fear and cease believing in the guardians because... Well he wants to be believed in alone, he's pretty much envious of what the guardians have. The Man on the Moon chose the guardians to put an end to the Bogeyman's wrath of fear which prevailed during the dark ages. I would've liked to known a little bit more about his origins and how he became to be the Bogeyman... Not a major flaw, but something that could've been covered. That way, he would've been a stronger menace.

Despite some warts, Rise of the Guardians' storyline is pretty good. It's not excellent, it's not without some hiccups and it may not be on par with the best stores in animated films... But it's good. It may not be as consistent as the stories in Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon, but it's not ten times worse. I honestly don't get most of the criticisms of the film's story. I think it works fine despite some issues.

Luckily, the creativity and look of the film make up for any flaws in the story alongside the writing. The voice acting and dialogue are the best in any DreamWorks film... There's no hip dialogue or out-of-place modern slang, and all the characters' voices define who they are. Instead of celebrities sounding like they just want the paycheck, the voice actors actually give it their all as the characters. Some of the performances are better than others, but none of them are bad or mediocre by any means. The humor works too, and the writers carefully balance the dramatic moments with the more fun, lighthearted ones.  Humor doesn't come in where it isn't needed. I was shocked to see how well done it was...

The animation is so good in so many ways, the best-looking that DreamWorks has created to date. Everything from the character designs to the background artwork is splendid in every way. So much creativity went into the artwork. The worlds where the different legends live are dazzling to look at, but more mundane settings like the small town of Burgess are also very pretty. Lighting, color and everything else? All handled extremely well. It's a technical marvel, that's for sure.

In all, I think Rise of the Guardians really shows how far DreamWorks has come in terms of storytelling, writing and design. For once, it's a film that isn't too focused on marketability or merchandise. It doesn't try too hard to be a comedy in moments where it shouldn't be, and the writers at least try to make it touching and emotional while also trying on different themes. The films made in the last four years or so demonstrate traces of this, but from where I stand, this film is the best that the studio has made yet.

I hope they continue to make films like this in the future; it's great to see them really branching out after years and years of terribly inconsistent films and stale comedies. The film shows what they are truly capable of in the world of animated storytelling.

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