The quirky spin on its famous characters isn’t the most interesting aspect of Rise of the Guardians. The most interesting part of the film is how it upholds fame as the biggest power in the world. It’s an odd subtext for almost any movie, and especially a family film. On the surface, there’s not much going on other than some fast-moving visuals and a smattering of jokes that wear too quickly on the premise. Director Peter Ramsay and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire may not have crafted a particularly thrilling adventure, but they’ve perhaps unintentionally created a fascinating value judgment.
The children of the world are protected by “guardians”: a group of beloved holiday figures and mythical creatures. There are other mythical figures in the world, but they can’t be seen by children because “no one believes in them”. One of these non-guardians is Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine), who finds himself reluctantly recruited by the other guardians—Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), and the Sandman—when Pitch Black (Jude Law) comes to spread fear, ruin the reputation of the other guardians, and make himself the only known legend in the world. Frost agrees to help only because it could lead him to reclaim his memories, and find out who he was before he awoke as an invisible figure who brings snow days to children.
What should be the film’s hook never quite comes together or rises above more than a simple joke. The Guardians gain their power on being recognized by children, but Ramsay has played it so that Santa and the Easter Bunny don’t fit the popular imagination of these characters. Santa speaks with a Russian accent, has tattoos, and wields giant swords. The Easter Bunny is Australian and wields a boomerang. These characters crave recognition and yet are somewhat unrecognizable as they’re depicted in Rise of the Guardians. It could be a fun twist except Ramsay never builds off these descriptions. It’s a one-off joke that makes the characters distinct but never multi-dimensional.
Instead of taking a breath to move the supporting characters beyond their quirks, Rise of the Guardians is all about the fast-paced action. Apparently, the most important quality a guardian can have is speed. Santa rushes around on his sleigh, the Easter Bunny moves through underground tunnels he can summon at will, the Tooth Fairy flits about, and Jack can fly. All of this is used to chase down Pitch, or to try and repair the chaos Pitch has caused or else the Guardians will no longer be in good standing with the children.
And what does this involve? As even Jack points out, it’s bribery. To “protect” the children and to make them believe is reliant on gifts. Santa doles out presents, the Tooth Fairy pays cash, the Sandman provides sweet dreams, and the Easter Bunny makes the hunting of colored eggs not seem like the behavior of the insane. Jack’s gift is providing snow days and creating snowball fights, so it’s an intangible joy, for which he goes unrecognized and is literally invisible to everyone.
Being invisible is the worst fate for a guardian. For all of the claims of protecting the children and bringing them joy, it’s a system based entirely on fame. Pitch is the resentful former star who was big during the Dark Ages, but now feels shunned for not being able to spread fear anymore due to those blasted guardians. But at least his motives are pure in their selfishness. The guardians’ identity and power comes solely from their popularity, and it’s a popularity that comes from giving gifts. To claim themselves as the “protectors” of children seems slightly delusional.
The intent of the film seems to be that what the guardians bring is magic, so the filmmakers can’t be faulted for at least aiming to express the importance of children believing in mythical, caring figures. And as for the end result, the audience at my screening really went for the film and applauded at the end. They were swept up in the adventure because who doesn’t want to root for Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny even if they never celebrated Christmas or went on an Easter egg hunt? After all, these characters are pagan, not religious. More than pagan, they’re celebrities, and as Rise of the Guardians teaches, power only comes through popularity.