Last year’s animated Arthur Christmas revealed that Santa Claus had a son — actually two. In Rise of the Guardians, the newest offering from Dreamworks Animation, we learn that he is also part of a superhero team sworn to protect Earth’s children.
Based on the fantasy book series by William Joyce, the movie brings together a group of iconic childhood characters, collectively known as “The Guardians,” led by Alec Baldwin’s North, a.k.a. Santa — only, here, he’s not jolly St. Nick, but a rough-and-tumble Russian swordsman, with “naughty” and “nice” tattooed on his brawny forearms, reminiscent of Robert Mitchum’s inked knuckles in Night of the Hunter.
Standing alongside him are Hugh Jackman’s Outback Easter Bunny, who throws a mean boomerang; Isla Fischer’s hummingbird-esque Tooth Fairy; and a silent Sandman, who communicates through mentally conjured pictograms.
They join forces to battle Jude Law’s Pitch Black, the bogeyman himself, a real nightmare who wants to spread fear throughout the world by infiltrating the dreams of boys and girls.
In need of reinforcements, The Guardians enlist new recruit Jack Frost, voiced by Chris Pine, a mischievous and mysterious teen with an ice chip on his shoulder.
Visually, the movie is a delight. Director Peter Ramsey demonstrates a keen eye for color and design detail, not surprising, given his background as a storyboard artist. I particularly liked the Aurora Borealis “bat signal” that North uses to summon his fellow Guardians and the way Dempsey creates distinct environs for each character: the Russian Orthodox-inspired North Pole citadel; the Tooth-Fairy’s Thai-tinged floating palace; and the Easter Bunny’s Aboriginal warren. The final parade of dreams is also a feast for the eyes, with a captivating cavalcade of unicorns, brontosauruses and flying manta rays, all made of golden dream dust.
Likewise, the movie serves up commendable lessons about heroism and hope, sacrifice and redemption, and, perhaps most important of all in our age of sclerotic secularism, the value of wonder and belief.
In doing so, however, it disappointingly — if predictably — weakens its faith-friendly message by presenting Christmas and Easter in exclusively secular terms, avoiding any Christian context. By conflating Santa and the Easter Bunny to the same level as the Tooth Fairy, the story essentially, if indirectly, relegates the two central feasts of the Christian calendar to the realm of fantasy.
Unlike in Arthur Christmas, which at least included a brief image of Santa as an ancient Catholic bishop, in Joyce’s mythology, the traditional gift-giving Kris Kringle (an Anglicized version of the German Christkind or “Christ Child”) is stripped of any saintly origin and re-imagined as a reformed Cossack, named Nicholas St. North, though this back story is absent from the movie.
But, like Arthur Christmas — and countless other modern Christmas-themed movies — this film is not about the Incarnation, but the loot. Without the toys — or, in the case of Easter, the painted eggs — the holidays simply don’t have meaning within this desacralized universe.
This is abundantly clear during a scene on the eve of battling Pitch, when, after a running gag of one-upmanship between Santa and the Easter Bunny over which holiday rates higher with kids, Santa exclaims that, for once, “Easter is more important than Christmas.” The line illustrates a profound misunderstanding about the primacy of the paschal mystery, culminating triumphantly in Easter, to Christian spirituality that seriously undercuts the film’s worthy themes. (Though I do like its Augustinian view of evil, capable only of corrupting, not creating.)
To point out just one more example, during a clash with Pitch, in which darkness appears to have the upper hand, we learn it is two days before Easter. That would make it Good Friday, which, though never referenced, makes theological sense. But then the film fumbles the ball by filling Easter morning with gloom and despair.
None of this necessarily warrants inclusion on the naughty list. And, in fact, the movie does get some things right. I particularly liked how each of the Guardians is conferred with a unique mission in life — their “center,” as Santa calls it. This idea of everyone having a special contribution to give the world called to mind Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman’s prayer: “God has created me to do him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another.”
As it turns out, Jack has been called to bring laughter and joy to others — what C.S. Lewis called “The serious business of Christianity.”
Of course, this begs the question: “Called by whom?”
While God is never directly mentioned, the story is allegorically infused with a vague sense of Divine presence, symbolized by the celestial Man in the Moon, an unseen-yet-all-seeing entity that “chooses” The Guardians and guides their activities and who allows them the freedom to reject his providential promptings.
In the end, however, the entertaining movie is less about “presence” than “presents” and fails to learn the lesson taught by Dr. Seuss in How the Grinch Stole Christmas: that maybe, just maybe, Christmas — and, in this case, Easter — means a little bit more!
David DiCerto, former film reviewer for the Office for Film & Broadcasting
of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is co-host of Reel Faith
on NET NY with Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus,
who is studying for the permanent diaconate in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Content Advisory: Contains some mildly scary images and scenes of peril that may be frightening for sensitive young children. For older kids and up.