'Tis the season... for costly 3D animated blockbusters! The newest animated confection to roll out of the major studio pipeline, just a few short weeks after the sweetly charming retro-romp "Wreck-It Ralph," is "Rise of the Guardians," the last film from DreamWorks Animation to be distributed by Paramount Pictures (next year, Fox will take over those duties). "Rise of the Guardians" collects various characters from mythology and folklore and puts them together into an "Avengers"-style super-team (Alec Baldwin is Santa Claus, Chris Pine is Jack Frost, Hugh Jackman is the Easter Bunny and Isla Fisher is the Tooth Fairy), to ward off the evil boogeyman Pitch (Jude Law).

Is "Rise of the Guardians" the stuff of legend, or merely something that will (ever-so-briefly) get you away from your more annoying family members this holiday season? Let's find out.

PRO: The Concept Is Ingenious How no one has previously thought of getting these holiday-affiliated characters together into a single unit before is beyond me. But just having the Easter Bunny (imagined here as a prickly Australian) butt heads with Jack Frost isn't enough. "Rise of the Guardians," based on a series of books by William Joyce (a legend in his own right), is gorgeously rendered and really, really clever; this is a fully imagined world populated by rich characters and stunning designs. Santa Claus, for instance, is heavily tattooed, like Viggo Mortensen in "Eastern Promises," with one forearm reading "Nice" and the other "Naughty." We also get a glimpse at each character's native land, with the Tooth Fairy coming from a place with giant birdcages (because the fairies flit like hummingbirds) and the Easter Bunny's tropical abode, which knowingly tips its hat to the ancient iconography of (wait for it) Easter Island. The fact that these characters, beloved to children the world over, team up to defeat an evil that's threatening childhood imagination, is another great, thematically resonant touch.

PRO: It's Not About Owls Yes, the title of DreamWorks Animation's "Rise of the Guardians" sounds confusingly similar to Warner Bros' animated "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole" (which was hilariously referenced on an episode of "30 Rock"). It's easy to get them mixed up. "Rise of the Guardians" is about childhood fantasy characters. "Legend of the Guardians" is about owls. They are both computer-animated marvels and were both released in new-fangled 3D. There is one key difference between the two, though: "Rise of the Guardians" is, as far as I can recall, completely owl-free.

CON: The Plotting Is Occasionally Clunky While it's a lot of fun to visit each of the characters' respective environments, it occasionally slows down the flow of the movie. When you have to start and stop the central narrative thrust, the rhythm threatens to become too uneven and herky-jerky. Thankfully, the wonder that is present in "Rise of the Guardians" far outweighs the plotting problems.

PRO: The 3D Is Really Cool Animated movies are almost universally released in 3D now, although few, if any of them, really benefit for the added dimensionality (with "Brave," for instance, it actively took away from the experience and made the colors darker and muddier). "Rise of the Guardians" is one of those rare 3D animated movies where putting on those silly Buddy Holly glasses seems positively essential. From an early sequence where Jack Frost is sinking in an icy lake to sequences where the Sandman conjures creatures out of grainy dream-stuff in the thrilling climax, you want these images to fly above you and at you. It is immersive and a lot of fun.

PRO: The Action Sequences Pop "Rise of the Guardians" was directed by Peter Ramsey, a genius storyboard artist who has worked on countless amazing films ("Bram Stoker's Dracula," "Being John Malkovich," "A.I.," "Fight Club," ""Minority Report," "Men in Black" etc.). When the movie shakes off the somewhat stodgy plotting and really lets loose, it's an absolute joy. Whether it's watching Jack Frost zip through a suburban neighborhood on jets of ice or seeing Santa's workshop come to life with hulking yetis and dippy little elves, these moments are wonderfully staged and executed.

PRO: Jude Law Is Back For a while there it looked like Jude Law, foppishly charming and charmingly foppish, had lost his way. There are only so many "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow"s that one actor can weather. But he's been smart and shrewd in his recent choices, eschewing the ravenous quest for superstardom that got him into "Alfie" and "Sleuth" in the first place, with smaller, winning parts in "Contagion" and this year's brilliant "Anna Karenina" (not to mention his great Watson in the two Robert Downey, Jr. "Sherlock Holmes" movies). In "Rise of the Guardians," Law gets to unleash his inner baddie as Pitch, a Boogeyman who wants to rid the world of childhood imagination. Here, he plays up his effete Englishness with swirls of evil black mojo that threaten to consume everything that's even remotely good or innocent. The animators have designed a wonderful character in Pitch, dressing him in form-fitting black and having him ride atop beastly steeds, but it's Law's nefarious slink that makes him really come to life. It's another wise career move and proof that the actor that we loved in "eXistenZ" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" is back and here to stay.

CON: The Sequel Isn't Already Finished When "Rise of the Guardians" concludes, you kind of wish that the sequel would start up immediately (or maybe just flash some storyboards about the next adventure of these characters). There have been several books (also by Joyce) written but really, DreamWorks Animation could take these characters anywhere, and with the mythological conceit, there could be new members of the team added at any point. The possibilities, as they say, are endless. If audiences are half as charmed as we were, "Rise" could be DreamWorks's next big franchise after "How to Train Your Dragon."
CATEGORIES Movies