I mean, sure, we had some inane and forgettable fare like “Madagascar 3” and the latest “Ice Age,” but any year where we get stuff like “Wreck-It Ralph,” “ParaNorman,” “The Pirates!” and “Rise of the Guardians” is a pretty solid year, which is why it’s so disheartening (and just a little baffling) to see “Guardians” flop at the box office.
I suppose it perhaps was the lackluster marketing or even the awful name (which made me think it was a sequel to that animated owl movie from a couple years ago), but it’s certainly not on account of the movie itself, which is smartly written and wonderfully executed.
Based on William Joyce’s “The Guardians of Childhood” series, we learn that various childhood myths are actually real and thrive off the belief of children to help them defend the world from evil. There’s Nicholas St. North, aka Santa, (voice of Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), Tooth (Isla Fisher) and her army of fairies and Sandman (a mute hero who is essentially what you’d get if you crossed Harpo Marx with a demigod).
They’re brought together by The Man in the Moon when Pitch (Jude Law) resurfaces with his power renewed, determined to force the world to believe in the Bogeyman once more after years of exile. To properly fight him off they’re going to need the help of Jack Frost (Chris Pine). Jack is relatively young compared to the rest of the Guardians, but he’s never quite been able to make kids believe in him the way they do Santa or the Tooth Fairy. As such, he’s reluctant to join the Guardians, content to be a trickster who starts snowball fights and gives kids unexpected snow days.
However, when he finds that Pitch holds the key to Jack’s lost memories from before he became a demigod, he decides he’s actually got something at stake worth fighting for.
The overall structure adheres a bit too closely to the traditional Hero’s Journey for my taste, but that familiarity is thankfully largely overshadowed by the script’s myriad strengths. For one, it moves at a great clip. Our heroes are introduced in a remarkably efficient manner, establishing personalities and relationships with a surprising amount of efficiency for a kids movie. It wastes no time getting us into the swing of this somewhat unexpected team’s chemistry while also setting up the larger stakes.
And those larger stakes is what separates this from other kids movies of the day. Pitch is an evil character. He’s ruthless and his plan is downright sinister: He wants to revive the legend of the bogeyman so that people will believe in, and ultimately fear, him once more and he does this by infecting the world’s kids with nightmares. It feels like most movies aimed at kids these days forgot how to actually have a sense of danger. “Guardians” goes there, though, and the story stronger for it because these characters actually have a fight worth winning.
And it all comes from a strong place of character. Jack’s arc may follow the Hero’s Journey, but it’s still written well and who can’t identify with his desire to find purpose and acceptance? It’s heartfelt stuff and actually had a surprising (if slight) religious undertone. There’s a scene where Jack desperately questions the Man in the Moon a sign, a word, anything to prove that he’s watching over Jack and has given him purpose. It’s an unexpected moment, both in its presence and execution, but no less effective.
Of course, what’s a concept like this without some fun action scenes and thankfully “Guardians” doesn’t skimp on this either. The action beats may not be as epic in scale as those in, say, “The Avengers” (despite a similarity in concept), but they’re fun and fast and each character gets to show off their own unique skills. This is perhaps where the film could have lost me the most because having a tattooed Santa dual-wielding sabers skirts dangerously close to being groan-inducingly stupid. But thankfully it’s deftly handled without every seeming overwrought or outright silly.
This is the best kind of family film, when it comes down to it. It has a fun concept, solid characters, a world that is established and interesting, a sense of danger that ensures the kids are never coddled but not so sinister that it becomes overwhelming and a message that feels relevant but never annoyingly overt.