Rise of the Guardians

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Imagine a world where Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and the Sandman all exist, and they must join forces to help save all the children whom they serve from a mischievous foe. No, it's not another sequel to The Santa Clause Ė it's Rise of the Guardians, an animated family fantasy adventure from the Dreamworks label that is as likeable and fun as it is instantly forgettable. There's plenty of action and visual dazzle to entertain the kids, and a sprinkling of amusing lines for the adults in tow. But it never quite escapes the sense that it was dreamt up by a marketing manager; it looks and feels like a computer game that was suddenly diverted on to the big screen at the eleventh hour.

That's not to say that it ends up being a lifeless experience. It certainly presents a different take on those mythical characters, here called Guardians; Father Christmas is now North for a start, and itís the yetis, not the elves, who make all the Christmas presents. Together with the Easter Bunny, the Sandman and the Tooth Fairy, they protect children from the darkness of another being, The Boogeyman (known as Pitch Black), who lurks in the shadows of night. When young Jack Frost is recruited to become a new member of the team, it signals the beginning of Pitch's master plan - to stop children from believing in the Guardians, thus weakening them and allowing him to take over.

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At its best, Rise of the Guardians invokes the spirit of C.S. Lewisí Narnia series: it presents a world that is recognisably our own, yet has some fantastical wrinkles which make it seem that much more exciting. Itís also a story with Father Christmas as a character but isn't actually about Christmas, and has a message about believing in yourself and others. The North Pole setting is an interesting mix of Santa's workshop and Bond villain lair. The realms of the Easter Bunny and the Toothy Fairy are also pretty to look at, if a tad less imaginative (though the idea of memories being stored in teeth is amusing). The best character however is the Sandman, who is - appropriately enough Ė silent throughout, and communicates purely through gestures.

Thereís no lack of energy onscreen either, with plenty of action-packed set pieces. A kinetic sequence early on illustrates Jack Frost's playful streak, which initially marks him out as unsuitable material for a Guardian (no-one believes in him, so he can't be seen, which is what drives the story; although how many kids believe in the Sandman these days is surely up for question too). North's sleigh is given a good workout, and the sheer variety of locations means thereís always decent eye candy on display. The final confrontation is also effectively carried off - possibly a tad too scary for the youngest members of the audience, but itís also the moment when the film really comes to life.

The voice cast also do well, particularly Alec Baldwin as North and Hugh Jackman as the Bunny, and Chris Pine is suitably cocky as Frost. But the sense that this is a calculated, market-orientated adventure, with its predictable story designed to works in all seasons for both religious and non-religious crowds, and characters that look like they were made for a McDonald's Happy Meal, is always lurking in the back of the mind. Even the franchise-friendly name suggests an all round lack of imagination; Hollywood needs to impose a moratorium on the word Rise appearing in any film title for the next ten years. Pleasant enough family fodder for the festive season then, but hardly essential viewing.

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