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Movies are drowning in mythology these days, to the point that half of the most popular franchises require reading the books or comic books, or at least asking your nerdiest friend who the hell that purple alien in the end credits is supposed to be. Children's films have been largely exempt from this exhausting trend, but now we have Rise of the Guardians, which takes fairly simple characters who exist in the public domain-- Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and others-- and assigns them a rigorous origin story and hierarchical structure, all told with the kind of free-floating whimsy that's supposed to keep it from feeling extra homework.
It doesn't work. RIse of the Guardians has moments of genuine wonder and pathos, and some spectacular animation that sets a new bar for texture in CGI, but it's so wrapped up in establishing its phony mythology that it's actual story is dangerously flimsy. We're asked to believe not only that Jack Frost (voiced by a chipper Chris Pine) is more than the figure of speech used in Christmas songs, but that he's an integral part in preserving the magic of childhood, and worthy of joining the "Guardians," currently made up of Santa (a Russian-accented Alec Baldwin), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) and the Sandman (mute). The group of them team up against Pitch (Jude Law), a.k.a. the boogeyman, who is intent on ruining childhood and getting the kids to stop believing in the Guardians, for no good reason beyond being straight-up evil.
Sure, we're all familiar with watching a team of unlikely allies work against a greater evil-- in fact, Pitch's British accent and long cloaks make him nearly identical to The Avengers's Loki, a coincidence that only makes Guardians feel like a straining effort to make The Avengers for kids. But while the dynamics between the characters in the Guardians may have felt authentic in William Joyce's original books, David Lindsay-Abaire's screenplay adaptation rushes through it, and crams in back story for Jack Frost too late in the film to make the character feel as important as the film needs him to be. Though there are plot threads about a little boy (Dakota Goyo) who is the last to believe in the Guardians, plus Pitch's sense of isolation, the story is meant to be Jack's, as he seeks acceptance by the Guardians and by the kids he gifts with occasional snow days. But while the animation is gorgeous elsewhere, Jack's facial expressions are oddly muted, and Pine's performance can't go far enough to make Jack Frost feel up to the level of the other, genuinely iconic mythical figures.
It feels ridiculous to even write that, though, because the whole point of these characters is that they're whatever you want them to be-- Jewish kids can grow up not believing in Santa, financially strapped parents can do away with the Tooth Fairy entirely, and for all I know kids growing up in wintry Northern climes believed fervently in Jack Frost. Rise of the Guardians is constantly straining to give mythic importance to characters who simply don't need them, and while the animation of these characters is beautiful-- and then power of childish belief as moving as it is in classic books like The Polar Express-- it's not enough to liven up the grinding machinery of this film.