You know, I thought this movie would be ok, but I really enjoyed it. The best kids’ movie of the year if you ask me (yes, outranking even Pixar’s Brave).
Spoilers are… look, if you’ve seen enough kids’ movies (or just movies in general) there are some very familiar story beats and this movie does hit them. However, it’s not out of place, it’s organic to the story and the path it takes to get to those beats can surprise you a few times. So I’ll put a more in depth discussion below the rating, but don’t fret as much about reading something in it. Some might ask why I’m ranking this one so high when I downgraded wreck-it Ralph for not having a bittersweet ending (and this one doesn’t). Well Ralph’s movie was organically moving towards a bittersweet ending. The story of RoG is one which… there is no middle of the road. Either everything works out or it doesn’t. When you set up and earn that “perfect” ending, that’s a thing of beauty.
Another concern frequently heard is that this movie might be a little too much like Despicable Me especially with Santa’s elves being like the minions of that movie. Well… only in the broadest sense. There is one brief scene that is very minion-ish and one elf in particular comes along the adventure and is very minion-ish in his demeanor. However, the elves as a whole remain distinct. They are completely silent, and a bit more mature and “adult” (sort of) than the minions who are often very childish and more mischievous. You also get a real sense of individuality to the elves that didn’t come off as well with the minions. There is a grudge match to be held there though.
Voice acting is competent. Jude Law is the stand out as the villain of the piece; and I would have given my left kidney to have John de Lancie voice the Boogeyman here (esp once you see his powerset).
What I can’t stress enough: the characters (especially the protagonist), are actually likable. Something I felt was missing too much in Brave. (hm… I seem not to have put up a review of Brave, anyone still interested?)
Sometimes as a joke, I say that a work is “the standard by which all others should be judged” yet here… I mean it. In a perfect world, this movie would be 3 shells; it would be average, the baseline for every film. In showing/telling, character arcs, story and action beats, this movie gets it right. I don’t even want to say it’s perfectly mediocre. While one can find any number of movies that do any one aspect better than this film, it is hard to find any that are this consistent in its quality (Pixar’s best are probably the closest). So it’s kind of sad that today, a normally just “good” film, is great when compared with its competition. Highly recommended for all ages.
3D NOTE: While there are some action sequences and set pieces that might look great in 3D, don’t feel obligated to shell out the $$.
(now more discussion without control on spoilers)
Best part about this movie? That it is unapologetic in its praise of childhood innocence and that this innocence should be protected. Maybe it just seems high from selection bias, but it seems to me to have been a long time since anything praised the best parts of the human heart unironically. And that’s what the guardians protect in this world! It’s not about the children’s lives (though one could read in a subtext about preventing suicide if one wished) but about protecting the children’s hopes and dreams and joys. The movie also ends with probably one of the best summations of what “faith” is to a Christian (at least, possibly other religions but I’m not as familiar with them). At the end, Jack Frost says, “Do you stop believing in the sun when it’s night?” Christian faith isn’t about belief in the absence of evidence. It’s about believing that the sun will rise in the morning, no matter how dark it is right now.
Again I can’t emphasize how great it is that the main character is likable. He’s not perfect, he does have an arc, but he’s a character you like being around, that you want to see good things happen to. The story starts out with him having fun with children, and we can see why (we are shown) he is chosen to be a guardian. He protects a child (and others) during a madcap sledding run. He enjoys being with others. When the traditional “betrayal” and group split happens at the movie’s midpoint, it’s not because of Jack being foolish or selfish, but because he was trying to do the right thing, to actually be a team player (and sucking at it – because he is an amateur). Of course, that this betrayal engineered by the villain ended up leading to his defeat tickled my writing side.
I liked that the movie juggled subtlety a lot better than many kids’ films. There is a running them about what a guardian’s “center” is – it’s their “theme”, what they bring to children, etc. Santa’s and Jack’s are the only one’s explicitly stated (and by that I mean with statements of “my center is…”) while the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny state theirs in more roundabout fashion. Sandman – who never speaks – never signals what his center is, but considering the ending where he is reborn… one could work it out or debate over it. The script does that in a lot of places. Things the kids need to know (let’s face it, when you’re young, you’re not good at picking up subtlety) are stated outright, but there’s plenty implied, shown and enforced.
The movie does great at implying a larger “world” out there while showing us what we need to know. It doesn’t let the settings get bogged down the grandeur or allow the minutiae to obscure more interesting facets.
And as I implied up above, religious folk will definitely get a kick out of this. Christians I know will, but other faiths can probably draw something from it as well. There is a rationality to belief and I’m hoping this movie can give all of us of faiths and atheists a common frame of reference and understanding for discussions. Not that anyone agrees, but hopefully we can all start grasping where we’re coming from.
Plus, Santa kicks ass.