Rated PG for thematic elements and some mildly scary action.
The latest from DreamWorks Animation is a story so clever that I’m amazed no one thought of it before. “Rise of the Guardians,” based on a series of children’s books by William Joyce, remodels beloved childhood figures like Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and the silent-but-expressive Sandman into an Avengers-like team dedicated to fighting supernatural evil all over the world. Hey, St. Nick and the big rabbit need something to do the other 364 days a year.
However, when the Boogeyman (Jude Law) returns after centuries of exile, the Guardians find themselves outmatched. Fortunately, the Man in the Moon — the Charlie to their Angels — has chosen Jack Frost (Chris Pine) to be the newest member of their team. He’s young, fast and boasts a number of cool powers, but he prefers to work alone. Now the Guardians must convince Jack to join forces before the Boogeyman destroys the heroes in a truly terrifying way: by getting the children of the world to stop believing in them.
DreamWorks has a spotty track record when it comes to animated films, but fortunately “Rise of the Guardians” is much closer to “How to Train Your Dragon” in tone and imagination than “Shrek Forever After.” Director Peter Ramsey and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire eschew old catchphrases and bad pop songs in favor of a compelling narrative, memorable characters, exciting action sequences and some genuinely tense moments. (Parents of particularly young children should take the PG rating seriously.)
The studio still adheres to its philosophy of casting recognizable names, but it actually works in the movie’s favor this time around instead of taking viewers out of the story. Baldwin makes a terrific Santa, voicing the gruff, tattooed hulk of a man with a boisterous Russian accent. Jackman is also enjoyable as the film’s comic relief, a giant imposing bunny who’s secretly a sweetheart. I’m sure the actor appreciated the rare chance to work in his natural accent as well.
Pine nails the everyman aspect of his character, who serves as the entry point into this magical world (the flick is clearly intended to be the first chapter of a franchise), and Law relishes his chance to play the villain without going too far over the top. Still, I think I enjoyed the Sandman most of all due to his expressive nature. He never speaks, but you always know what’s on his mind thanks to some creative animation techniques.
There are a few overly cutesy touches (like Santa’s elves that are way too similar to the Minions in “Despicable Me”), but overall “Rise of the Guardians” is a solid family film that should play well into the Christmas season. Don’t let the disappointing box office numbers dissuade you from checking it out.
“The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2”
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sensuality and partial nudity.
Solely out of my loyalty to director Bill Condon (and to make sure our long nightmare is truly over), let’s talk about “Breaking Dawn — Part 2.” It’s supposedly the final installment in the “Twilight” saga, but I’m sure the inevitable reboot or television show will come along soon. Condon, an unquestionably skilled filmmaker, hasn’t changed my opinion of the series, but at least he makes the last installment of Stephenie Meyer’s disconcerting story watchable.
If you haven’t seen any of the other films, it would be pointless to start with this one. Condon knows that only the hardcore fans are hanging around by now, so he doesn’t even bother with a recap for newcomers. Instead, the flick opens with Bella (Kristen Stewart) in vampire mode, completely healed from her horrific childbirth experience in “Breaking Dawn — Part 1.” Apparently, this is what it took to get the insipid character to stop sulking, because Stewart actually gets several opportunities to — gasp! — smile this time around.
In fact, almost everyone in the movie seems more chipper than usual. Bella’s new vampire husband, Edward (Robert Pattinson), is downright giddy, likely because Pattinson knows he’s only a few short scenes away from making real movies. Jacob the werewolf (poor Taylor Lautner, saddled with the most ludicrous plotline in a flick full of absurdity) is happy because he’s in love with Edward and Bella’s newborn baby, Renesmee (played by Mackenzie Foy and some of the creepiest CGI I’ve ever seen).
For the first hour, there’s no conflict whatsoever. Only when the Volturi, the de facto leaders of the world’s vampires (portrayed by Michael Sheen, Dakota Fanning and several others), think Renesmee has been turned into a vampire does the miniscule plot kick in. The penalty for changing a child into a vampire is death, so Edward, Bella and their extended family must round up other vampires to vouch for the child’s natural birth. Everything culminates with a legitimately riveting battle sequence, but Condon is only allowed to take narrative risks by wiping away every compelling story development almost immediately.
As always, the supporting cast almost redeems the flick. As Bella’s dad, Billy Burke plays everything in a wonderfully understated fashion, demonstrating his continued existence as the only rationally-thinking character in this convoluted story. Michael Sheen hams it up as the big bad, clearly understanding exactly what kind of movie he’s in.
But the true MVP is Lee Pace, immensely entertaining as one of Edward’s non-moping vampire relatives. I’ve given “Twilight” a lot of grief over the years, but I’ve got to be honest: if Condon directed a spinoff about Pace’s character — who is funny, self-assured and actually kills people like a vampire is supposed to — I would watch the heck out of it. Well, as long no one let Meyer or Melissa Rosenberg, the franchise’s longtime screenwriter, anywhere close to the script.