I understand why certain legends are kept alive to a point. Santa Claus is a nice embodiment of the spirit of giving and a nice figure to introduce children too if parent's don't feel equipped with the means of teaching the young one's why charity is good. True, the jolly old man has been whittled down into a dispensary of video games and toys while the adult's wearily exchange smiles and smaller items, but at least the intent is there.
Less understood are why we've decided to let the rest of these characters pollute the imagination. Of the very few good movies I've seen involving Santa Claus I don't think I've seen a single appearance by the Easter Bunny in something worth a damn and never even touching the original representation of virgin birth or fertility. The rest of the cast of Rise of the Guardians and their involvement in film history the better as the Tooth Fairy has been more often been the source of bad horror films, the Sandman only really successful in comic form, and Jack Frost? I didn't even know he was still talked about enough to warrant being in the film.
Of course that's something of the point to RotG, frequently discussing how old legends grow into complete irrelevance if they aren't treated as real. Based on their presentation in RotG I'm not sure why they should be kept around. Genuinely altruistic motives are scarcely seen and what actions are witnessed are through the creations of a sadistically quiet creator who created all the problems and then appointed avatars of selfishness to represent him. Approaching this film as an adult the film is boring and mean, but as a kid I have no idea what I would think of the scenes where Jack silently contemplates the meaninglessness of his existence while the existential face of non-existence looms in space overhead. You know, for kids.
To give credit where credit is due, first-time feature film director Peter Ramsey and screenwriter David Lindsay -Abaire do not condescend the source material. RotG is based on a collection of children's books in the Guardians of Childhood series, serving as a prequel to the shenanigans of the film. There's no winking at how absurd it is the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), and the silent Sandman, have all teamed up to serve as The Avengers of childhood. When they fight it's deadly serious because if the world stops believing in them then they threaten to enter the void. This is material that may go over some of the little one's heads a bit, but the bleak subtext is just an excuse to have this version of Santa Claus dual-wield swords against dark creatures.
The character designers took some fun risks with the big four. None of them are safe, homogenized versions of the fictional characters we've seen dozens of times before but mostly unique creations. The most fun redesign is Santa, who in this iteration is a stout Russian with tattoos of "Naughty" and "Nice" on his forearms (itself a nice illusion to another fable in Night of the Hunter.) But the most creatively successful is the Sandman, who is mute, and communicates entirely through the endless shifting dream sand that follows him.
The other praise goes to the more original aspects of the screenplay with Jack Frost (Chris Pine). He is caught in an one-way conversation with his creator from the first frame, literally emerging from darkness cold and confused while searching for his purpose in life. The scene's where he's yelling at the eternally quiet moon come from a much darker place than the lightheartedness of Santa's Workshop (which still has a bit of edge with the poor Sasquatches that really do all the work while the elves are humored.) There's an idea, one I agree with and made very explicit later on, that the only reason any of these legends were created to begin with is to present some kind of defense against fear, the unknown, and death. Then the Boogeyman (Jude Law) shows up to try and put a wrench in everyone's dreams, give the "We're not so different you and I" speech, and generally behave like a standard villain.
It's not that I was expecting some of the more intriguing ideas to stick around because in the end this is still a holiday movie featuring an Easter Bunny who dual-wields boomerangs. However that doesn't excuse the incredibly repetitive chase sequences and a few of the worst examples of storytelling that fly in the face of "Show - don't tell." The animation, while bright and with a handful of fun designs, is animation by tunnel. Each step of the journey is presented in a chase scene that goes straight from point A to B with no danger and only the sporadic close-up of one of the participants to liven things up.
Less excusable are how many scenes go talked about instead of witnessed. Yes, there are moments of beauty like when the Sandman is working his magic. But the creation of a whole nightmare army, the effects of evil on all the brains of the children in the world, and an epic battle for the fate of Easter, all take place just off-camera with the Guardians talking about it. The worst example is that final battle where, instead of actually witnessing the great struggle, we're treated to Jack Frost beating his head against walls in darkness.
RotG is an odd movie. They could easily have adapted the same material and played it straight for adults, embracing the past necessity of beautiful lies to teach children, or they could have just gone full epic and eschewed the interesting subtext. As it stands it's another disappointment in a year where animation has had too strong a desire to play it safe, which is just the medium to avoid that.