Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa,or the Oaxacan Night of the Radishes, it can be agreed that Christmas in film has become a genre all its own. The Christmas scenario is rife with storytelling gold: the spirit of community, the snow-white settings, the impending December 25th deadline, the characters’ heightened expectations and corresponding heightened capacity for disappointment. It all adds up to a pleasingly buoyant but high-stakes premise that has been mined for silver screen fun year after year, and brought us such standbys as Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Scrooged, and Elf.
But this holiday season, Santa’s offerings were scant, leaving little girls’ and boys’ wishes resting on one big gift: a $145 million DreamWorks Animation inclusive holiday escapade cryptically titled Rise of the Guardians. The story follows the lost soul Jack Frost (Chris Pine) as he is appointed to an elite band of fantasy characters, the Guardians. But the Guardians, which includes the likes of Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), The Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), and The Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) are threatened in their mission of protecting the children of the world when their nemesis Pitch Black (Jude Law) returns, determined to poison those same children’s minds with nightmares.
The film weathered a horrific opening weekend in the US, with numbers lower than any DreamWorks release had seen since 2006’s Flushed Away barely registered. But while it has managed to recoup its budget thanks to a steady stream of holiday viewers and some success in overseas markets, critics solemnly concur – it’s nothing to add to the Christmas canon. So in the benevolent seasonal spirit, here’s a constructive look at how Rise of the Guardians unsuccessfully veered from the path of beloved Christmas films past, so that filmmakers yet to come might be warned.
1) Not set at Christmastime – Within the first few minutes of the film, we learn that the Guardians are in a hurry because it is three days before… Easter? Now, while the film never purported to be exclusively about Christmas, the advertising seemed to feature the back-in-black tattooed new Santa as the centerpiece. Plus, the Thanksgiving release date aligned with what audiences have come to expect for winter holiday fare. So when the film itself only showcased Easter Sunday and The Tooth Fairy’s nightly jaunt around the world, it felt not only unseasonable and disorienting, but, from a storytelling perspective, less momentous.
3) Not based in known folklore – One of the great things about Christmas films is the feeling of satisfaction a person derives from seeing figures or processes that already exist in his imagination played out before his eyes. Watching Santa’s belly getting slurped through the chimney in The Santa Clause, the viewer thinks, “So that’s how that works.” Or, seeing Clarence Odbody summoned in It’s A Wonderful Life, he thinks “A-ha. My guardian angel is a star in the sky.” Seeing Guardians, audiences gleaned little such satisfaction, for having minimally preconceived notions of The Guardians or protagonist Jack Frost.
4) Too many characters – A much-imitated Christmas film, Love Actually, achieves this with grace. But one could argue that people in love are more easily relatable to audiences than Guardians. This stems from the unknown premise issue – unfortunately, Guardians failed to establish a new world and make the audience care for its six leads all at once.
2) Voldemort rip-off villain – Guardians also suffered from a common plight in film, that of the vague, moustache-twirling villain. Pitch Black is an amalgam of all other villains in film history, representing, as his name explains, the darkness. The only specific consequences that the audience knows they have to fear from him are nightmares (which exist regardless, no?). Additionally, his tall, black-robed figure, gaunt face, hissing British-inflected tone, and allusions to having gained the strength to return pegged him as being too heavily inspired by He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
5) Bad title – DreamWorks only exacerbated the situation for Guardians by bestowing on it one of the most unmemorable titles of the year. Looking at a list of showtimes, not only can audiences not identify this as a holiday-themed offering, but even those who saw the trailer may fail to recognise the title for its egregiously generic flavour. It would seem that in an effort to please everybody, DreamWorks has pleased nobody, and in the meantime come up with an unfortunately pun-able title for a box office disappointment, which will not be indulged here.
Maybe it is unfair to criticise Guardians for lacking as a Christmas film, when DreamWorks could claim not to have submitted it to that test. But by putting a red-suited fat man on screen within weeks of the special day, the studio should have known it was toying with those Christmas expectations, seen its excitable target, and fired. Though attempted breaks from traditionalism are always to be commended, so too is the infallible magic of the classic Christmas film.