The first big family movie of the 2012 holiday season, DreamWorks Animation’s Rise of the Guardians (rated PG for mildly scary action), opened to disappointing earnings over the Thanksgiving period. Though the film seemed to have all the ingredients of a hit—a huge production budget ($145 million), A-list voice talent (Alec Baldwin, Jude Law, and Hugh Jackman), and liberally distributed trailers that previewed some spectacular CGI—audiences gave the winter-themed movie the cold shoulder.
After only five days in theaters, one Hollywood analyst was already calling it “one of the most disappointing releases in [DreamWorks] history.” Another estimated it will result in at least a $70 million loss to the studio. The company’s stock price has tanked thanks to the negative headlines.
The fact that Rise of the Guardians is indeed visually dazzling, garnered generally positive critical reviews (76 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes), and had little competition in its genre during a weekend that saw record-breaking industry profits makes its failure all the more curious. It’s safe to say the problem wasn’t marketing, timing, or any of the other mechanics studio reps usually blame for flops. Rather, it seems evident that kids and their parents simply weren’t drawn to a story that turns traditional childhood icons like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy into non-traditional superheroes.
Leaving aside the argument over whether Christian parents should indulge in these holiday illusions at all, we can at least acknowledge they are an ingrained part of celebrations in the United States. And reinventing conventional fables is exactly how DreamWorks Animation built its brand. Without the staggering earning power of fractured fairytale Shrek and its sequels, the studio wouldn’t deserve to have its name mentioned alongside its closest competitor, Pixar. Yet going by the Shrek template, Guardians should have been a blockbuster.
Like Shrek, Guardians takes figures and settings children are intimately familiar with and gives them a modern, snarky spin. Rather than jolly old St. Nick, we get a glowering, sword-wielding hulk of a Santa (Baldwin) with a gravelly Slavic accent and tattooed forearms reading “Naughty” and “Nice.” Though the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and the mute Sandman receive cuddly characterizations, the Easter Bunny (Jackman) and Jack Frost (Chris Pine) become, respectively, a giant brawling Aussie with anger management issues and a spiky-haired skater brat. Together, they make up the Guardians of Childhood, a team sworn by the Man in the Moon to protect the children of the world from Pitch (Law), the manufacturer of fears and nightmares.
What’s most surprising about this premise is that no matter how quirky director Peter Ramsey and his team apparently mean for it to be, it all plays out pretty darn pedestrian. Take away the beautiful imagery, which is due more to William Joyce who illustrated the book the movie is based on, and you are left with something very much, as actor Pine put it, like The Avengers for kids. Except kids already have The Avengers and plenty of other superheroes to boot. What they don’t have much of are those magical symbols of wonder that are beloved precisely because of their simplicity.
Though part of a Mother Goose world, Shrek was an invented character. His contemporary sarcasm set against fairytale tropes worked because he was new to the scene. Santa and the Easter Bunny, however, are, to children, otherworldly figures in the real world. To alter their nature is to alter the fantasy. To give them ironic, edgy new personalities is to demand of children edginess and irony in one the few places where such adolescent concerns aren’t yet foisted on them. While the heroes of DreamWorks’ film claim to be the guardians of childhood, their tattooed, hoodied posturing actually diminishes it. Which may be why, though Rise of the Guardians offers visually beautiful, slightly above mediocre storytelling, most children are staying away.