A scene from the film "Rise of the Guardians," an adventure with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and other mythical beings battling an evil spirit. (Paramount Pictures / DreamWorks Animation)Link
Bunnymund, voiced by Hugh Jackman, left, and North, voiced by Alec Baldwin. (Paramount Pictures / DreamWorks Animation)Link
Director Peter Ramsey's latest animated movie is, "Rise of the Guardians," based on the children's book by author William Joyce, right. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)Link
Jack Frost, voiced by Chris Pine, left, and Tooth, voiced by Isla Fisher in a scene from "Rise of the Guardians." (Paramount Pictures / DreamWorks Animation)Link
North, a Santa-like guardian voiced by Alec Baldwin, stands between two yeti. (Paramount Pictures / DreamWorks Animation)Link
Sandman eyes his target in DreamWorks Animation's "Rise of the Guardians." (Paramount Pictures / DreamWorks Animation)Link
The elves are North's loyal helpers. (Paramount Pictures / DreamWorks Animation)Link
Jack Frost (Chris Pine) keeps up with Jamie (Dakota Goyo). (Paramount Pictures / DreamWorks Animation)Link
Jamie (Dakota Goyo) awakens to find The Guardians -- Tooth (Isla Fisher), Jack Frost (Chris Pine), North (Alec Baldwin), Sandman and Bunnymund (Hugh Jackman)-in his bedroom. (Paramount Pictures / DreamWorks Animation)Link
Children's author William Joyce stands with a poster of Santa Claus, or North, who plays a character in his book which has been turned into a movie titled, "Rise of the Guardians." (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)Link
Santa and the Easter Bunny are constantly one-upping each other, the Tooth Fairy feels overworked, Jack Frost is a perpetual adolescent and the Boogeyman is having an identity crisis. These are the workplace dynamics of the childhood characters who populate the new DreamWorks Animation fantasy-adventure film “Rise of the Guardians,” which opens Wednesday.
The idea to unite the different folkloric figures in one narrative began more than a decade ago with children’s author and illustrator William Joyce, who wanted to write a series of picture books and novels called “The Guardians of Childhood” that told the legends’ origin stories much the way that comic books unspool the back stories of Spider-Man and Batman. Joyce was inspired by a question his 6-year-old daughter, Mary Katherine, had asked him — are Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny friends?
With movie studios hungry for films based on recognizable characters, Joyce’s idea gained traction in Hollywood, but he had an unusual request — he wanted to make the movie and the books at the same time.
“I didn’t want it to be an adaptation,” said Joyce, whose 1990 picture book “A Day With Wilbur Robinson” was adapted into Disney’s animated 2007 film “Meet the Robinsons.” “There’s always this weird tug of war between fidelity to a story that already exists and what’s good for a movie. I was like, let’s just avoid that entirely… ,” he explained. “Because then the audience, they don’t come in with expectations, they aren’t disappointed when you take certain things out. And they don’t know what happens, which to me is the most fun part of watching a movie.”
Most studios balked at the proposition, according to Joyce, but in 2006, executives at DreamWorks were intrigued enough to begin developing the movie before the author had published a single title in the series.
“Bill had a big idea — why we love and need and support the belief in these mythological characters,” said DreamWorks Chief Creative Officer Bill Damaschke. “He so believed in them actually existing. He made them cool.”
The unorthodox dual-track development plan, however, meant that at the same time that Joyce was writing and illustrating the books from his home in Shreveport, La., first-time feature director Peter Ramsey and producers Christina Steinberg and Nancy Bernstein were making the movie on the studio lot in Glendale.
All the parties involved said the path from a clever idea to a finished movie was a long and sometimes tortured one. While Joyce’s books dive into the individual characters’ back stories and how they perform their jobs, that approach involved too much detail and narrative sprawl for a feature-length family movie.
The film is set 300 years after the resolution of the book series, and shows the Guardians working together — a la Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk in “The Avengers” — to protect the world’s children from Pitch, a stylized take on the Boogeyman voiced by Jude Law. The Guardians — North, a muscled, tattooed Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin, with a Russian accent); Bunnymund, a cocky, Aussie Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman); Tooth, a hyper-competent hummingbird-inspired Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher); and Sandy, a mute and Buddha-like Sandman, are joined by Jack Frost, a teenage loner with no memory of his human life (Chris Pine).
All of the Guardians’ power depends on a simple form of currency — whether children believe in them.
“We knew that we wanted to present these guys as superheroes, that it would be an epic,” said Ramsey, who worked as a storyboard artist and illustrator before directing the 2009 TV special “Monsters vs Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins From Outer Space.” “Making that story line work and integrating it into the overplot of the guardians versus Pitch, making everybody seem like they needed to be in the movie and that you got what you wanted from them as your childhood favorites without it being hopelessly overburdened and clunky — that was the hard part.”
After early attempts at crafting a cohesive story floundered, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, who wrote “Rabbit Hole” and the book and lyrics for DreamWorks’ “Shrek” musical, came onboard to focus the script.
“As wondrous and fantastical as it might be, nobody watches a movie to see what the Easter Bunny’s warren looks like,” Lindsay-Abaire said. “My job was to keep the story going. This is a story about a guy who wants to know who he is [Jack Frost], and a story about good vs. evil.”
As Lindsay-Abaire wrote from his home in Brooklyn, and artists and designers worked in Glendale, Joyce kept abreast of the project with the help of a giant video screen for teleconferencing from Shreveport.
“Bill was privy to every page,” Lindsay-Abaire said. “Do you like this? Does it contradict anything you’ll be doing? Anything you’re planning on doing? But he let it be its own thing.”
It’s unusual for an author to have that level of involvement in a film based on his work, but Joyce enjoys artistic clout both in publishing and Hollywood. His early children’s books, such as “George Shrinks” and “Dinosaur Bob and His Adventures With the Family Lazardo,” won ardent fans among critics and parents of young children for their colorful, witty illustrations.
He has also worked steadily on TV and film projects since the 1990s, creating the Emmy Award-winning “Rolie Polie Olie” animated TV series, contributing concept artwork on the first “Toy Story” and directing this year’s Oscar winner for animated short film, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.”
Plenty of other strong figures weighed in too — cinematographer Roger Deakins served as a visual consultant, Guillermo del Toro as executive producer.
The visual style of the film is inspired by Joyce’s original concept art but not slavish to it. And the style varies wildly between the different characters’ worlds — Pitch’s black, nightmare realm looks like a shadowy, German Expressionist film, while the Tooth Fairy resides in a cheery land of lavenders and turquoises.
“We knew the designs for the movie needed to be different from the books, because the world Bill is working in is a world of literary tradition,” Del Toro said. “We wanted the movie to feel like an adventure. Bill’s books function in a different key than the movie. The movie takes a very heart-on-your-sleeve take.”
Amid the chatter of many creative voices, there was one through line, according to Ramsey — the notion of taking Santa and Co. seriously. “When you’re a kid you actually do believe in these guys,” he said. “Everybody felt good about that core concept. And that helped, having something that secure.”
While the project was underway, Joyce suffered tragedy — in 2010, Mary Katherine, whose curiosity years ago about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny had helped inspire the “Guardians” project — died of a brain tumor at age 18.
Last fall, Joyce published the first of his “Guardians of Childhood” books — a picture book about the Man in the Moon from Atheneum Books, a children’s book imprint of Simon & Schuster. Publisher’s Weekly called the “Man in the Moon” book “warm and fuzzy, swashbuckling, and dazzlingly inventive all at the same time,” and it landed on the New York Times children’s book bestseller list. Stories of Santa, Jack Frost, the Sandman and the Tooth Fairy have followed, packaged in promotional wrappers that read, “Read it before you see it! In theaters 11-21-12.” Eight more books are planned.
“Sometimes [the filmmakers] took leaps I did not expect, and sometimes they took leaps I did not initially agree with, but I trusted these guys,” Joyce said. “All along we said, we’re dealing with people we believed in when we were kids. We’ve gotta get this right.”
— Rebecca Keegan
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