“No, we aren’t here to molest you.”

Rise of the Guardians looked like a load of Grade A bullshit, a weirdly children-hating (festive!) engine designed to ape the superhero fad and use it against the wee ones. From its uninspired title to the ridiculous conceit that holiday figures are actually magical guardians protecting kids from evil, this seemed like something that could only be made in a creative landscape devoid of all sense of irony or self-awareness. Even the trailer just screamed “trying too hard” with it’s super-warrior reinvention of classic characters like Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, etc and an obvious Hero’s Journey story just like all the rest.

There’s a certain class of critic who, having formed strong preconceived notions about something, will stick to their guns whether the pot of gold at the end of the marketing rainbow is actually shit or gold after all. I am not that guy, I have realized, because I am here to tell you how very wrong I was about Rise of the Guardians. By now, word is coming in from many critics that this movie is actually pretty damn good, one of Dreamworks’ best and yet another annual entry that successfully competes with Pixar’s. I have the seemingly minority view that Brave is one of Pixar’s best movies, and I don’t think Rise of the Guardians is as good, though it’s close. That said, for many people it’s going to be Guardians (or Wreck-It Ralph for the Toy Story crowd) that leads the pack of 2012 animated films. And it’s quite a pack this year.

Guardians is principally about Jack Frost.

Rather than being an origin story for the Guardians as a supergroup, it is really the origin story of Jack Frost (Chris Pine). Or at least how he comes to be involved with the “Big Four”, those folktale beings who make up the Guardians. There are other beings like them, like Jack, around the world (some, like the Leprechaun, are mentioned) but the Big Four are the ones with the most power. This power is generated from the belief of children, and each of them keeps careful track of the kids around the world that their powers rely on. This is an early indicator that the Four have gotten a bit away from their original purpose.

Jack, on the other hand, is a lonely guy that none of the kids believe in. He has fun with them, using his magic staff (serious) to inspire them to the kinds of spontaneous, generally dangerous mischief that kids get up to and remember for the rest of their lives. Jack interacts with kids directly, even though they can’t see him or hear him, and is known among the others of his kind as a bit of a rascal with not much sense of responsibility.

The common denominator for all these superbeings is the Man in the Moon. The Moon seems to be the originator or organizer of the cosmic altworld that Guardians takes place in. It isn’t clear, or necessary, in the movie, how this all works but it seems like each of the Four has a base accessible only through certain means. These bases reflect their personalities, the core principle at the heart of what they represent for kids. For North (Alec Baldwin), otherwise known as Santa Clause, it’s his North Pole workshop full of retarded elves (serious) and Ghibli-inspired yetis who do all the toymaking. Likewise, we see Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher)’s base as well as Bunny’s (Hugh Jackman). The last of the four is Sandman who is responsible for dreams and never speaks. We don’t get to see his home, but I sort of suspect he drifts around and maybe doesn’t have a magical fortress like the others. No way to know for sure without reading the book this movie’s based on.

The character design is so rich and detailed that even absurdities like North’s tattoos feel organic rather than tacky.

Jack is called by the Moon to join the Guardians when a wicked, malevolent being called Pitch Black (Jude Law) reappears. Pitch governs fear and has a master plan to change the balance and get kids to stop believing in the Four and start believing in him instead. Instead of going after them directly, Pitch uses misdirection and flanking tactics to carve into their territory. While he does this, the Four get Jack to help them try and take some back. It’s an interesting sort of battle, one that is fought by proxy and less with swords or magic powers but more with inspiration and earnest representation of what North calls their “cores”. North’s is wonder, Tooth’s appears to be love, and Jack is encouraged to find his because it is why Moon has picked him to be a new Guardian.

Meanwhile, Jack can’t remember anything before becoming Jack Frost. The other Guardians remember their lives before, saying that they were all “someone”. This inspires the idea that it’s the role that is the constant, not the particular individual. There must always be a Santa Clause, for example, but he doesn’t always have to be a gregarious Russian. This angle isn’t really explored in the film but seems interesting and certainly implied.

Jack’s self-interest clashes with the proxy war against Pitch, making him a liability.

Anyway, Jack is sort of tortured with questions about who he really is and what he’s supposed to do. He is super lonely and wants kids to believe in him so he can be seen and heard and connected. Pitch, it turns out, isn’t so different. He is also ignored, no longer believed in as the “Boogeyman”. Wanting to be recognized is at the heart of both their motivations and it’s obvious that there’s a parallel: Jack could easily have become Pitch and Pitch would like nothing more than this. That said, Jack is powerful against Pitch precisely because Jack’s core is fun, an antithesis of fear.

All of this mechanical plot stuff, and the underlying themes, are handled by the movie exceptionally well. It’s light for the most part, but there are moments of darkness and beauty and a real sense of sadness at the heart. When you see Jack’s true origin, that shit is heart-breaking even as it completely affirms Jack as a protagonist. He’s already likable, but finding out why he was picked and why he’s so necessary (and really deserves to not be alone) is actually downright rousing.

This movie has a lot of fun with its premise, knowing when to break away from the broader conflict and tell a smaller story. It’s rare to see a fantasy story have such a confident and seemingly effortless sense of its own world-building, or so much fun with it.

While world-building is definitely a strong attractor in this movie, I think its strongest suit is the narrative. The core theme is recognition. Not in the fame sense, but in the sense of being known. Jack and Pitch both want to be known, but both are prevented from that by various (sometimes similar) factors. Pitch wants to be the only thing known, his hunt for recognition excludes everything else. His destructive mentality needs containment. Jack, on the other hand, simply seems himself as an outsider. That’s also how others see him, with North being the first to look deeper.

Jude Law has plenty of oily fun as Pitch.

What gets in the way for Jack is his need to know himself first. That’s also the deciding factor in the potential to go bad. Too much for Jack is a question mark until he can understand himself. This turns out to be what’s been holding him back, but vitally necessary in the process of his joining the Guardians and taking on Pitch. He has a deep selfless streak so when he acts out of selfishness, even he is surprised by the outcome. When he embraces himself, he truly becomes something knowable. This is a great lesson for kids that is also ripe for fun philosophical analysis. Kids see this and understand the importance of self-knowledge. North gives an early sign that things are going this way when he described to Jack how his inner nature is what makes him a Guardian. All the Guardians know themselves, are comfortable with themselves, and this gives them power.

However, it’s Jack who reacquaints them with the kids they’re supposed to be inspiring and protecting. This shows the downside of self-knowledge: self-absorption. Pitch is the extreme example of self-absorption, and he’s the villain. All the Guardians have taken a step down that road, but not in any way that isn’t retractable with a simple, gentle reminder that they’ve got to have fun. They need it as much as the kids do. It’s as full an arc as a hero could have and it’s accomplished in not even 90 minutes of movie. Most heroic fantasies can’t do this in 150, let alone 90.

Though many of its narrative tropes are familiar, Guardians practices the kind of baseline good storytelling that is necessary to create and maintain a sense of discovery within the familiarity.

So it’s always nice when you assume something about a movie and it turns around on you. That makes this sort of an anti-Prometheus. It’s the opposite. A movie that looked and sounded impossibly shitty and turned out to be a smash fucking surprise the other way. 2012 is a great year, even with such disappointments as Prometheus, because it has movies like Rise of the Guardians.