*Click on all images in this review for full 1080p screenshots.
The Guardians of Childhood (book) series by William Joyce was quite the find for Dreamworks Animation, as it clearly held the potential to be a gold mine. From a marketing standpoint, it was brilliant in its simplicity. First, they'd be able to cash in on Christmas filmgoers by incorporating our favorite fat man in red pajamas. Now mere months after the fact,< i>Rise of the Guardians DVDs and Blu-rays will fly off the shelves, as the addition of a heroic, yet loveable bunny makes it a given that the film will end up in Easter gift baskets everywhere. Still, the holidays only provide a limited window of interest, but that's where the genius comes in - Joyce also saw fit to include other fantasy figures that would nullify the 'holiday' vibe, ultimately allowing the product to sell year round. Even so, brilliant marketing ploy aside, making a holiday film that< i>isn't a holiday film? That's a tightrope balancing act if there ever was one, and if the plot and characters come across as bland or uninspired, their potentially big moneymaker could easily turn into a financial sinkhole. So, Dreamworks brought Guillermo del Toro on as an Executive Producer, hoping he'd shape the story and thematic elements into a cohesive theatrical package. Question is, were their efforts enough to make a magical film, or was it all just wishful thinking on their part?
Although many Dreamworks films take place in fictional worlds, Rise of the Guardians brings us back to planet Earth, where innocence continues to be cultivated from our hopes and dreams... but what would happen if these basic building blocks of humanity were suddenly dissolved? Well, the Guardians - Nicholas St. North as the Guardian of Wonder (Alec Baldwin), E. Aster Bunnymund the Guardian of Hope (Hugh Jackman), Tooth the Guardian of Memories (Isla Fisher), and Sandy, the Guardian of Dreams - keep a vigilant eye on us to ensure that doesn't happen. However, their power is only as strong as the belief we have in them, and that foundation of faith is about to be shaken by Pitch Black, The Boogeyman and Nightmare King (Jude Law). Pitch can only thrive when the world is in a heightened state of fear, so he launches an all-out assault on the Guardians in their respective territories, hoping his efforts will cause the children of the world to lose their faith, inevitably leaving them vulnerable to his nightmares. Pitch is too much for the Guardians to handle alone however, so a fifth is chosen to help prevent our world from collapsing... but does the newcomer have what it takes?
That's where Jack Frost (Chris Pine), The Spirit of Winter comes in. He has the power to provide children with wintry fun, but because he has little sense of self or purpose, he's never put it to good use. No, fun for fun's sake often leads him into mischief, meaning he's never done anything good enough to make children believe in him. He's grown tired of watching the Guardians hog all the limelight, and since Jack has been largely perceived as immature and irresponsible, he's reluctant to help them in their time of need. Picking up on the emotional rift that plagues the newly appointed Guardian, Pitch hopes he can exploit that to his advantage by offering Jack what he's wanted all along - A little recognition. Sure, he could do the right thing and help the Guardians, but he'd likely remain a nobody for all of eternity. However, helping with Pitch's uprising would be a different story - Although the world would fear him, they'd at least know who he is.
Despite my love for Dreamworks Animation flicks, I recognize their weaknesses are typically with plot and character development. There's usually minimal effort in the writing, all for the sake of delivering basic values such as 'treat others as you would treat yourself', or 'don't judge a book by its cover', and the characters rarely have to undergo a significant transformation to find that message. Surprisingly though, Rise of the Guardians actually tinkers with some thematic elements that go a bit deeper than your typical family fare. Jack's struggle with his lack of identity is, in my opinion, one of the finer aspects of the film overall. When first introduced to him, he's just as much in the dark about his past as we are - He can't remember where he came from or why he was chosen to command such a unique ability. We can tell he's frustrated and sad, but at the same time, we can also see a strong ember of warmth and kindness within him, ready to ignite through his icy exterior when tested under the proper conditions... and boy is he tested. Yes, Rise of the Guardians delivers lots of impressively rendered action in fantastical locations, but Jack embodies the heart and soul of the journey we take along the way. His character arc is definitely one of the finer examples in recent animated history (outside of certain Pixar films, at least), and the film's numerous lessons - one person can change the world, think of others before thinking of yourself, sometimes all you need is a little faith, etc. (take your pick) - are impressively layered in a way that won't just keep the older crowd awake, but will suck them in to the story and ultimately compel them to feel.
Jack isn't the only one vying for the spotlight though, and I was concerned the filmmakers would drop the ball while attempting to juggle so many leads. For the film to work as a whole, these characters needed to be both charming and endearing, and perhaps most important of all, they had to be credible. Of course, their mythologies have been altered somewhat to fall in line with the 'Guardian' mantra, but the combination of immaculate writing and superb acting make them fully realized. I know we're talking about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny (amongst others) here, but what can I say? Their stories and personalities were engaging and pulled me deeper into their plight by the minute. That's mostly because they're all integral to the plot, and not just a marketing afterthought... which, let's be honest, we all expected them to be. Their involvement also forces us to look inward and ask some very important questions - What would the world be like without dreams, hope, faith or love? Would we actually exist, at least in a way that would allow us to thrive? When those aspects of spiritual and emotional health are in jeopardy, would you put everything on the line to get them back and preserve humanity?
I know it sounds like the film's thematic elements could shoot well over the heads of our children, but I wouldn't be concerned. The multilayered nature of Rise of the Guardians ensures that everyone will take something away from it. Even if you're looking to shut your brain off for a couple of hours to enjoy a vivid CGI adventure, don't worry, because the pacing and design won't leave you in the cold (sorry, I couldn't resist). Regardless of personal taste, you'll likely find this film to be comical, adventurous and magical fun. So, to answer the question at the beginning of my review - Yes, the effort of everyone involved truly paid off, as Rise of the Guardians boasts a story loaded to the brim with flash and substance, and crosses beyond the boundaries that would have classified it as a holiday film. My only warning is that some of the tone set by Pitch Black might scare the youngest of audience members, although it didn't seem to be much of an issue at the theatrical screening I attended some months ago. Outside of that, sit down, relax, and enjoy the ride with your family.
Come on, this is an animated Dreamworks film. Do I really even have to prattle on, gushing about the gorgeous 1080p transfer (AVC encoded, 1.78:1)? Rise of the Guardians is as flawless as you could expect on Blu-ray, with the only minor quibble being some very minor banding. Outside of that, you're very much getting the visual knock-out experience that was shown theatrically. North's workshop is warmed with holiday reds, Sandy's sleepy time sand is preserved in its original golden glow without any digital artifacts, Tooth's palace is intricately designed and dreamy (although Tooth and her helpers are even more a sight to behold), and Bunnymond's Easter portal is a realm that's so lush and colorful, you'll probably find your jaw hanging on the floor. In short, detail is sharp and well defined, always showing even the most miniscule details the animators had worked into the mix. Colors are as vivid as can be, black levels are flawless and helps to enhance the tone that Pitch often sets, and contrast is never challenged to imperfection. If you're looking for a recent title to dazzle your friends in your home theater, you can't go wrong with this transfer.
There should be no surprise that the 7.1 Dolby TrueHD track is, in a word, flawless. There's a lot of action and excitement in this film, so the entire surround stage is consistently engaged for total immersion. Major sound effects swarm around with pinpoint precision, and quieter scenes offer a realistic sense of environmental ambience. Clarity is striking at all times, and as a result the score is able to act as yet another star of the film. There's plenty of low end to go around as well, and it always sounds appropriate, never loud just for the sake of being loud. After all is said and done, if you don't listen to this track loud, then you're not doing it right.
-Jack Frost Snowball Showdown - You get to control Jack in a third person snowball fight. The kids will probably find this game to be a lot of fun, and to be fair, that's exactly who this release is aimed at. Still, I've never personally been a fan of gimmicky supplements, so this amounts to little more than filler for me.
-Rock, Paper, Scissors with Sandy - Another game, and it's exactly as the name would imply.
-Behind the Magic - Now we're getting to the good stuff. There are four chunks that make up this documentary, clocking in together at nearly 28 minutes. It's fairly informative without ever resorting to techie talk, so even the youngest audience at home will be able to get a full grasp on how the film was designed and scored.
-The Man Behind the Guardians - Author (of The Guardians of Childhood series) and Executive Producer William Joyce discusses bringing his vision to the big screen.
-Dreamers and Believers - This behind-the-scenes featurette gives us a look at the vocal talent bringing the film's characters to life.
-Sandy's Dream Guide - This interactive dream interpreter is sort of a neat idea, but it gets dull quick.
-Filmmakers Commentary (with Director Peter Ramsey, and Producers Christina Steinberg / Nancy Bernstein - Much like the 'Behind the Magic' documentary, the commentary here is high on information and low on tech jargon. More importantly, everyone involved not only discusses creating the film from a technical standpoint, but finally delivers how the story made the transition from book to film. Definitely worth a listen, even for the casual fan.
-2 Hopping Eggs (Spring Gift Pack Edition - Well, it's certainly a nice tie-in for Easter! On the front of the slipcover is an attached box (via tape) that houses two plastic eggs with hopping feet. Wind 'em up, and the feet will clack back and forth, allowing the eggs to 'hop' across a hard surface. If you're buying this as an Easter stuffer, then the little ones are going to get a kick out of them... if they work. Neither of mine actually worked the way they were supposed to.
Also included are DVD and UV copies of the film, so you and your little ones can watch it anywhere.
Rise of the Guardians had the potential to be a venture in expensive filmmaking with a limited window of interest, but thanks to a variety of fleshed out characters and a story that transcends the 'holiday' pigeonhole, it's a marvelous film that can be enjoyed year round. I understand it didn't do as well at the box office as Dreamworks had hoped, but I'd certainly like to see more out of this franchise in the future. If you're looking for some character depth, you'll find it with Jack, but if your goal is to sit down and veg out on the coach to 97 minutes worth of entertaining eye candy, you'll still find this to be well worth your time. The A/V on this disc is practically reference, and the supplements, although littered with some filler, does a fine job at detailing how the film was made. Highly Recommended.