The figure of Santa Claus looms imposingly large, muscular and tattooed (as opposed to fat and jolly) in this seasonal release from Dreamworks Animation.
But Rise of the Guardians is not really a Christmas movie. For one thing, most of its action is set around Easter. For another thing, it casts Santa Claus, a.k.a. "North" (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and the silent Sandman as just another troupe of warriors battling the forces of darkness.
It's like The Expendables for preschoolers. And if that sounds antithetical to the Christmas spirit, well... yes, precisely.
At least one can't fault the lushly detailed 3D animation in this story beginning with the origin of Jack Frost (Chris Pine), a mischievous spirit who arises one night from a frozen pond with no memory of who he is or what his purpose is. Hundreds of years pass and Jack is content to wander the Earth, um, creating ice crystals.
Meanwhile, in Santa's North Pole fortress (which more resembles the high-tech lair of a Bond villain than a quaint workshop), the Russian-accented North learns of an imminent threat. A dark force literally threatens to spread across the world. The Boogeyman, who goes by the formal name of Pitch Black (Jude Law), has grown tired of his relative anonymity in the kiddie realm.
He attempts a kind of coup by interjecting himself in the dreams of children. It turns out that Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy get their life force from the belief of children from around the world. If kids stop believing, their very existence is threatened. It falls to Jack Frost to reset the balance of belief in favour of the guardians.
As in last year's Arthur Christmas, much of the film's creativity goes into elaborate, high-tech explanations as to how Santa manages the task of visiting every child in the world over the course of a single day, with the added attractions of exposing the Easter Bunny's and Tooth Fairy's operations, too.
It all has a kind of unseemly militaristic vibe, which should come as no surprise, given that first-time feature director Peter Ramsey's past credits include being a storyboard artist on Independence Day and Godzilla.
Rise of the Guardians professes to be about a group of fantasy figures who band together to protect the innocence of children. But by drafting Jack Frost, Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy into ferocious battle, one can't help wonder if the makers of this movie weren't on the side of the Boogeyman.
Excerpts of select reviews of Rise of the Guardians:
"It's mercifully free of the Shrek franchise's rabid and smug deployment of in-jokes and pop-culture references, defaulting always to visual dazzlement."
-- Ed Gonzalez, Slant
"None of the tots here are developed as characters beyond their capacity for awestruck naivety, and that cloying, patronizing attitude extends to the picture as a whole, which feels beholden to some whiz-bang corporate ideal of what young people presumably want from entertainment."
-- Justin Chang, Variety
"Mostly, the movie keeps things on the near side of fun, and pushes a not-entirely-insipid life perspective. The ratio of staggering craft to innocuous content brings this to a level of better-than-average contemporary children's fare."
-- Glenn Kenny, MSN Movies
Rise of the Guardians
Starring the voices of Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman and Chris Pine
Grant Park, Kildonan Place, McGillivray, Polo Park, St. Vital, Towne
2 out of five stars