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‘Rise Of The Guardians’ Delivers A Triumphant Team-Up Tale [Review]

The first time I saw a poster for Rise of the Guardians, I rolled my eyes so hard that I actually hurt myself. You probably saw the same one I did if you went to the theater any time last summer. The close-up of the Naughty and Nice tattoos just conjured up images of a Poochie-esque version of Santa Claus, cranked up to x-treme by a team of ad executives and accompanied by “hilarious” and marketable elves to drain every last bit of sincerity and replace it with something that would look good on a Burger King cup. It looked like exactly the kind of thing I hate seeing in Christmas movies.

But then I saw the trailer and it looked like it might be okay, and then I saw that second trailer and it looked like it might be worth seeing. By the time it was actually out in theaters, I’d been brought around to being more excited for it than anything else out in theaters right now — and it lived up to every expectation I had.I’ll go ahead and get this out of the way right up front: I definitely cried at the end of this movie. I’m the first to admit that I’m a complete and utter soft touch when it comes to cartoons that try to tug at the old heartstrings. I don’t think I mentioned it in my review, but I misted up three times during Wreck-It Ralph, and when you throw in a story about kids believing in the magic of Santa Claus (and some other guys that aren’t Santa and are therefore way less important)? Full-on waterworks.

But while I’m an easy mark, all that manufactured schmaltz that I was worried about is completely absent from Rise of the Guardians. The elves and their licensible antics are actually kept to a minimum, and there’s none of the fourth wall breaking Dreamworks Smirk™ that’s been their signature in the infinite Shrek sequels that have been released over the past few years. There’s an honesty to the emotions in the story that makes it all work.

Take Santa Claus as an example, because for me — and everyone being lured into this movie as a Christmas adventure despite the fact that it takes place in April — he was the main attraction. I believe the record will show that I’m a pretty big fan of Jolly Old St. Nick, and there’s a scene early in the movie that explains exactly how he works. There’s no irony to it, and it’s that refreshing earnestness that captures everything I love about Santa Claus as a character, and a lot of why I get so into the spirit of Christmas, too. That was the moment that hooked me, and it had nothing to do with Santa swinging swords around or leading an army of yetis, although he does that too, and it’s pretty awesome. It was just solid writing.

That wasn’t an isolated incident, either. All of the characters — with the exception of the Sandman, who’s more mute and cartoony than his comrades — have that moment that humanizes them and makes them more than just fairy tales used for comic relief.

Plotwise, the title of the movie is a little misleading. When this particular story kicks off, the Guardians are already risen, fully established in their roles as protectors of children, which makes sense considering that nobody really needs more backstory on who Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are. Still, as much as I’m normally all for skipping through an origin story when it’s not strictly necessary, I sort of wish they would’ve gone for it here. There are a few allusions to centuries of history with these characters as a team, and I really would’ve liked to see that.

Basically, I want to see Santa Claus battling the Boogeyman with his twin cutlasses. Fortunately, I can read exactly that story in one of the books the movie was based on. Still, though, that’s the kind of thing you want to see.

Instead, Rise of the Guardians is less of an origin and more of a straight-up superhero story, with all the familiar beats that comics fans are going to know by heart. We follow Jack Frost as he’s recruited by a superteam made up of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and the Sandman so that they can deal with the returning threat of the Boogeyman, who has returned after a thousand years to plague children with night terrors and ruin their belief in the good things in life

More than anything else, I was struck while watching it by how much this movie is like a Justice League story. Specifically, it echoes a lot of that classic Grant Morrison/Howard Porter story from 1998′s JLA #22 – 23, where Starro takes over the dream kingdom and the world can only be saved when a kid believes in Superman. It’s a pretty obvious parallel, but even in the broad strokes, it fits that pattern. Deaths and resurrections, ancient evils and superpowers, it all works like that kind of big superteam story.

Even the characters themselves fit the patterns. I’ve made a lot of jokes over the years about the Justice Leagues of Various Non-Justice-League-Things (the McRib is the Green Arrow of the McDonald’s Menu), but this time it fits perfectly. Santa is Superman, of course, and the gruff, boomerang-slinging Easter Bunny who has an underground headquarters and a chip on his shoulder is Batman, Tooth is the Flash, and the Sandman with his dream-sand constructs is Green Lantern. Since he’s the rookie, I guess that makes Jack Frost this movie’s version of Aztek, which means that this is as close as I am ever going to get to a movie where Santa Claus hangs out with Aztek and they fight a guy who looks a lot like Vertigo Sandman.

It has all of those superhero beats and roles, with symbolism and what they represent writ large to the point where it’s explicitly stated in the dialogue. But that’s not a complaint. I like stories like that, and when they’re done well, I love them. Not only is Rise of the Guardians done well, it’s done well in a way that’s a perfect storm of like ten different things that I love.

If it had a toy line with a cutlass-wielding North that I could buy right now, it’d be perfect.

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