DreamWorks’ ‘Rise of the Guardians’ raises animation to ambitious heights

Adam Pockross
Movie Talk

If DreamWorks invites you to their campus for breakfast, you say yes (the biscuit sandwiches are amazing)! If DreamWorks invites you along for not just breakfast, but for an intimate preview and behind-the-scenes deep-dive of their latest animated wonder "Rise of the Guardians," you say heck yes!

So it was I found myself getting a full-on animation education from some of the foremost minds working in the medium today, including, but certainly not limited to, director Peter Ramsey and executive producer Guillermo del Toro (writer/director of "Hell Boy" and "Pan's Labyrinth"). Along with a slew of my fellow journalists, I visited with artists from so many facets of the gargantuan production it boggles the mind trying to figure out how it all came together at all.

[Related: Get local showtimes and tickets for 'Rise of the Guardians']

Not that del Toro had any trouble seeing the forest from the Christmas trees when he asked DreamWorks to be a creative consultant on the project. "I instantly knew, that in my estimation, this was going to be a beautiful, powerful, rich movie," del Toro says.

The first trees of the "Guardians" proverbial forest happened long before del Toro or DreamWorks ever got involved with the project. That's what happens when the stars of your film are some of the most well-known names in all of storytelling: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, Jack Frost, and the Boogie Man. But these Guardians of childhood innocence and imagination are not the greeting card versions of the legends you grew up with.

The film explores these characters unbeknownst back-stories, which had been left surprisingly unexplored until author/illustrator and Oscar winning short-film director William Joyce had the good sense to do so. When Joyce's young daughter asked if Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were friends, what else could he say but "Yes"? But then Joyce had to come up with the connections. Along the way, Joyce created rich mythologies behind the characters we thought we knew so well, weaving them into 13 stories in the "The Guardians of Childhood" series (only five of which have already been released).

"Rise of the Guardians" takes Joyce's characters and propels them into the future, to the time of the origin of Jack Frost, voiced by Chris Pine. In doing so, the filmmakers create six vastly different, fully-realized worlds of wonder, one for each Guardian and one for Pitch, the dream-crushing Boogie Man (voiced with dastardly delight by Jude Law).

[Related: 'Rise of the Guardians' Featurette: North]

"This movie was incredibly ambitious, in terms of just the sheer scope of it. That we had six unique worlds and six unique hero characters: the guardians plus Pitch, and each one having their own realm, plus the human world. So there's a lot, a lot of stuff," says production designer Patrick Hanenberger.

What I didn't realize was just how much stuff is involved. How do the characters move? How do they look? How do they talk? How does their hair move? And since the Guardians are in effect superheroes, how do their super powers work?

All these questions require lot of answers, and none of the answers are arrived at easily.  To get a sense of the intricacies of each element involved, take a look at the below featurette, which explores the look of just one facet of the production: the Sandman's super power, "dreamsand."

Watch 'Rise of the Guardians' Featurette: Making Dreamsand...

Seeing the depth of research and innovation among all the simultaneously moving parts, it makes the seamless and beautiful end-product all the more impressive. Ramsey, whose job as director is to oversee it all, explains it like so: "The animation production process is kind of like the live-action production process, but all at the same time. All the phases of production end up overlapping and happening together."

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What the filmmakers have arrived at is not your typical DreamWorks animated feature. It's significantly darker in tone than the popular "Shrek," "Madagascar," and "Kung Fu Panda" franchises. But in exploring that dark side, the light is magnificently amplified in a world all its own. All that hard work shows up in a dazzling way on the big screen. And that's not just the breakfast biscuit talking.

"Rise of the Guardians" opens November 21st. The vocal cast is rounded out by Alec Baldwin, Isla Fischer, and Hugh Jackman.

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Watch more "Rise of the Guardians" Featurettes:

Rise of the Guardians: Jack & Bunny Featurette Rise of the Guardians: Sandy & Tooth Featurette