An Early Look at DreamWorks Animation’s Rise of the Guardians

Last week, ComingSoon.net had a chance to see DreamWorks Animation’s upcoming holiday release Rise of the Guardians, based on “The Guardians of Childhood” book series by William Joyce, which examines what might happen if Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Sandman not only knew each other but fought together to protect the children of the world.

In the movie, the legendary holiday icons take on the nefarious Pitch Black a.k.a. the Boogeyman, voiced by Jude Law, who starts to take away children’s belief in the Guardians, which is what gives them their powers. On the ropes, they’re forced into recruiting a new member in Jack Frost, voiced by Chris Pine, that kids aren’t quite as aware of and he doesn’t have as many believers, but he offers a much-needed vitality of spirit that can help the group recover in their fight with Pitch.

With a script by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Daniel Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole) and directed by DWA vet Peter Ramsey, the animated action adventure features a stellar cast including Alec Baldwin voicing North–their version of Santa Claus–with a Russian accent, Hugh Jackman as the Easter Bunny and Isla Fischer as the Tooth Fairy.

I can’t really want to say too much about the movie just yet since it doesn’t come out for another month, but I’ll freely admit it took me by surprise and I enjoyed it more than I thought it would. When I first watched footage from the movie in the DreamWorks Animation presentation earlier this year, I thought it looked great, but worried whether the characters could be sustained over an entire feature length film, especially after seeing the same footage at CinemaCon a few weeks later.

Rise of the Guardians works surprisingly well, not just because of the fun interaction between the main characters, who everyone over the age of 3 will know and love, but also due to some of the characters who become much more prominent over the course of the movie. For instance, we fell in love with Sandy the Sandman, the voiceless Harpo Marx-like character who uses his sands to communicate and Pine does a fantastic job bringing the same amiable charm and humanity to Jack Frost that he brought to Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. It may not surprise anyone who sees the movie that Joyce’s most recent picture book features the Sandman and his next novel will feature Jack Frost.

Even so, one of the reasons why I thought the movie worked particularly well at taking you back to your childhood and your own belief in the iconic characters was the inclusion of actual kids in the story, particularly a young boy named Jamie, voiced by Dakota Goyo from last year’s Real Steel, who holds onto his belief of Santa Clause and the other Guardians, as well as his adorable younger sister Sophie, who steals many a scene.

It’s a rich film filled with humor and exciting action, and like the best animated movie, there’s many moments kids will enjoy but also enough to keep grown-ups entertained without getting into the jokey territory that’s been such a big part of DreamWorks Animation’s animated family comedies. The finished film, which we saw in 3D, looks fantastic but we also have to mention how much is brought to the table by the always wonderful Alexandre Desplat’s orchestral score whose music really enhances the film’s sense of wonder.

In a year where there’ve been lots of really good animated movies but nothing that’s really wowed us in the same way as movies like WALL•E, Ratatouille, last year’s Rango or others, Rise of the Guardians is another step in the right direction for DreamWorks Animation, following How to Train Your Dragon in 2010, and we think it’s going to be a great holiday movie as well as an awards contender.

After the screening, “The Guardians” author William Joyce, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire, and director Peter Ramsay came out to do a very brief Q ‘n’ A about the movie with Joyce talking about how the concept of the Guardians came together.

“I have kids and my daughter came up to me one morning in August with her baby brother Jack who was three at the time and he had lost a tooth and with very serious expressions on their face, they’re like, ‘Dad, does the Tooth Fairy know Santa Clause?’ I was like, ‘You know, that’s a very good question’ so as I describe it, I began to do research and I found out that, ‘Yes, they do know each other and they work together and they have a common enemy–because good guys need one–and it became evident it was this fellow that we call the Boogeyman, actually Pitch, and as I did my research I learned a lot about them that we didn’t know until now.”

He talked a bit more specifically about North, his version of Santa Claus, and why he’s so different than the Santa we know. “I just thought about how he seemed to be when I was a kid and it was not this doddering little jolly guy. He judged you and he was capable of ruining your whole year so he wasn’t a pushover, so from the beginning, it was interesting from Day 1. It was Sean Connery, so that’s what everybody grooved on. There was never an instance when anybody went, ‘Oh, I don’t get that Santa’ which stunned me. I thought we’d have to be swimming upstream.”

Ramsey joined in with his own thoughts on Joyce’s distinctive version of the characters. “You think about it for a few moments but for me, the brilliant thing about Bill’s idea was that for every character, you could take one step to the left and then look at them again from a different perspective, and then suddenly they become this whole other thing. With North, Santa Claus, it’s like what do you have? You have this big guy with white hair. He decides he’s going to deliver toys to every kid in the world in one night. How’s he going to do it? With a flying sleigh. How are you going to make the sleigh fly, with birds? No, I’m going to get my reindeer to pull it. I mean, the guy’s insane. Definitely crazy. So out of that came this idea that reality doesn’t mean anything to this man. Nothing’s impossible to him. He can build a fortress in the middle of the most inhospitable place on earth and decide to set up shop and build toys there and it’s going to be the happiest place in the world. With all the characters it was like what’s an interesting aspect of their personality to build them around and that went to everything from their personalities to their voices to their worlds were constructed, basically everything about them.”

“There was so much great material. I think the trick was finding whose story it was,” Lindsay-Abaire said about pulling together the series of books into a single film.
“You fall in love with the characters from childhood and then Bill just reinvented them in such a great way, so for us, it was really focusing on Jack Frost, who had the best question. When I mentioned Jack Frost to my kids, that was one character they knew the least about, so it seemed the logical thing to have the character, who doesn’t know who he himself is, to have the audience discover him as he’s discovering himself.”

“In my research, it was hard to find material on Jack,” Joyce continued. “Early in the process when I started developing the project as a film at DreamWorks, the question was, ‘Whose story will this be?’ We have all these characters and we need to focus on one. The way that it got better is that one day in the story room, someone said, ‘I think in my research is that Jack Frost doesn’t have a holiday,’ and that just turned the key for all of us.”

The moderator asked Ramsey about making a movie with so much stuff going on – action, comedy, fantasy, drama, etc. “It’s a really full meal,” Ramsey responded. “Part of the logic behind that was that we had these characters that almost everybody at some time or another in their lives believed in, and still believes in, and the mental space that they take up in your head is vast. What I was hoping for was when we saw and experienced the worlds of these characters that they’d have the kind of size and the scope and that overwhelming sensory involvement that kind of mimics what you think of them as a kid. It really was about putting yourself in the head of a child who has a really intense emotional relationship with these characters, so that’s why we had the bright colors and the huge scale and the motion. It’s all to evoke this feeling that you have when you really believe, which is the core of what David’s screenplay was all about. It’s what our story, at its heart, is about. It’s a big fun Star Warsy kind of adventure, that’s kind of what it’s designed to be, this kind of superhero movie, but underneath all that, there’s stuff that hopefully makes the engine go is the idea that at some point or another, you believed in it and that’s the most important thing, too.”

Lindsay-Abaire mused on how everyone involved got into the spirit of Joyce’s books because everyone had a soft spot for the characters portrayed. “It’s a story very much about belief but the power of imagination and that every single person involved with this process has that at their center, so for me, as the screenwriter, it can also be a very difficult process. For this, it was amazing to hand in pages and every person that contributed something, it got better and better and better and that never happens, for me at least. To see the storyboards and to see what the actors brought to it with their voices and then to see it fully animated. Each step of the way, imagination got bigger and brighter and more exciting until we mimicked that thing we love about childhood.”

Oddly, we were the only question from the audience and we asked the filmmakers about why the film doesn’t feel like your typical DreamWorks Animation film, partially since the big name talent does such a good job losing themselves in their characters. You’re not watching Hugh Jackman voicing a giant rabbit – you’re watching the Easter Bunny.

Ramsay explained why that may be the case. “From the very beginning when I first came on and gave my notes and thoughts–it was right around the same time David did–I think everybody felt first and foremost that we wanted to go a different way because everybody has a deep emotional connection of some kind or another with these characters and we wanted to respect that. We wanted to find a way to have fun with the new versions of these characters but at the same time, make them really true to what they really meant. The more I thought about the idea, the more powerful it got to me to do it in that way, but I think everybody had that same impulse.”

“Yeah, we just started talking about the story and pitching it to DreamWorks and they embraced it,” Lindsay-Abaire agreed. “It’s an epic story about very big things and these characters, we all have opinions about them, so we just wanted to be truthful to the story of these characters and that was it. DreamWorks never leaned on us to make it gaggy.”

Joyce also talked about how he watched the characters from his books come to life in the hands of the filmmakers. “What I hoped would happen was that they’d craft a grand entertainment and that these characters were grand in our childhood memories and they should be treated with respect that they are magnificent beings and everyone got on board with that, and it was really stirring. People would come in on the process on every level and go ‘Oh, yeah, I remember’ and they would put that into it. Making these things is hard, but it’s a lot easier when everybody gets it in their soul and that seemed to be what happened on this one.”

Afterwards, we attended a cocktail event and had a chance to talk a bit more with Ramsay and Lindsay-Abaire about developing the movie, particularly their decision to include children in the movie and what that brought to the mix.

You don’t have to take our word that Rise of the Guardians is shaping up to be one of the best animated movies of the year though, because it opens nationwide on Wednesday, November 21, the day before Thanksgiving.

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