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Just believe. In recent years, that slogan pops up with great frequency during the holidays, sometimes appearing simply as “Believe” on Christmas ornaments, banners, serving platters, and all types of holiday decorations. Christians and cynical secularists may respond to the “Believe” catchphrase with the same, though differently emphasized question, “Believe in what?”
The trouble is that fans of the “Believe” mantra only care that one believes in something, thinking that following that principal will lead to happiness no matter what or who the object of that belief actually is. So how do the believers in belief get non-believers to believe? Get ‘em while they’re young.
Thus is born the innocently packaged Rise of the Guardians, a film that makes all the right moves to attract kids and their parents, even keeping content kid-friendly and mostly appropriate for all ages. But inside that pretty package is an overt attempt to teach kids to build their life foundation on lies and, worse, to strip God from their world.
Jack Frost is his name. How does he know? Because The Moon told him. His name is pretty much all Jack knows, since he has no memory of his life, if indeed he had one, before he awoke in a frozen pond. Jack quickly discovers that if he uses the staff he found, he can create ice, summon wind to carry him through the air, and can even make it snow.
His other discovery is less exciting—he is invisible. He cannot be seen or heard by children and the people who populate the earth because they do not believe he exists. Santa Claus, on the other hand, has to hide when he visits houses on Christmas Eve because most children believe in him, so they can see him clearly. The same goes for the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, and even Sand Man. These are the great Guardians for the children of the world, the protectors who “watch over the children on Earth to keep them safe and guard their hopes and dreams.” The Guardians are rewarded for their valiant efforts by the recognition and appreciation from the children they serve.
But poor Jack Frost, even after 300 years of existence, gets no credit for creating snow days and fun sledding trails. Instead, he just gets the blame of the Guardians for his mischievous ways and seemingly self-centered living. No child believes in Jack, and he’s tired of his invisible life. The fear that no youngster will ever believe in him is pressing, but greater still is the fear that he will never know why he was chosen, where he came from, or his purpose.
Fears are what the dark is all about and from the dark returns the evil Pitch Black, a villain who was banished at the end of the Dark Ages. Turning dreams into nightmares and hope into fear, Pitch launches an attack on the Guardians and the children of the world, doing everything he can to undermine the kids’ belief in the Guardians, who will then lose their powers.
With so much at stake, the Man in the Moon shockingly chooses another Guardian—none other than Jack Frost. But in order to save the Guardians and the children, Jack will have to discover more than why he was chosen. He’ll have to find out who he truly is and use that knowledge to help the children believe.
The makers of Rise deserve accolades for several elements. First of all, they’ve produced a fantastically imaginative animated piece that is at times sheer, beautiful art. Cleverly realized, complicated visual sequences are impressive signs of intelligent minds at work. Creative thinkers are also no doubt to thank for the inventive script that has a strong story, complete with well-sculpted plot and developed characters. The voice acting is also excellent, though Chris Pine, with the voice of a mature man, sounds a bit mismatched with the slightly built and youthful Jack he’s supposed to be playing.
Of greater value is the effort the filmmakers made to keep this film family friendly—an increasingly rare feat even in supposed children’s movies. The only offensive language in Rise is two uses of “bloody” (by the apparently Australian Easter Bunny) and some light name calling. Slapstick inevitably makes an appearance, but is limited to only a few brief and not emphasized moments. The worst of the typical content concerns come with the movie’s dose of violence. Again, this violence is handled in a non-graphic manner that is appropriate for most kids.
This absence of offensive content is despite the red flags like the film’s Santa Claus having tattoos on his arms and wielding double swords that he’s clearly not afraid to use, as well as the Easter Bunny presented as a tall, tough-guy rabbit ready to rumble for any personal offense. These depictions of Santa and Bunny might be of greater concern if they were characters that parents would actually want their children to believe are real, emulate, or idolize.
It would be hard for a child to not end up in such a believing state when watching these characters as they’re portrayed in Rise. The usually jolly Santa is still friendly in this take, but also a modern, “fearless,” and powerful fighter. Like Santa, Jack Frost also carries god-like qualities in his ability to control the weather (even making it snow indoors) and face down the darkness of Pitch with magic of his own. All of the Guardians have magical powers, but the Man in the Moon, whom viewers never actually meet, is the most all-powerful replacement for God.
The Man in the Moon, frequently referred to as “The Moon,” apparently sees all and is in charge of all. “He” chooses the Guardians and controls their fate. Viewers are even directly told to follow The Moon with Jack’s closing words: “So when The Moon tells you something, believe it.” In children’s films, Santa is often the god-like figure, but, in this case, he is upstaged by The Moon. This switch constitutes a frightening leap from calling for faith in an imaginary person to faith in a visible object that was actually created by the God this story seeks to replace (Deut. 4:19).
Yet such substitutions for the Divine are interwoven throughout Rise in many layers. Santa and the Easter Bunny, for example, are portrayed as the embodiment of their respective holidays and as the reason for the existence of Christmas and Easter. When Pitch outlines his plan for destruction, he says there will be “no more Christmas” and “no more Easter” once he defeats the Guardians. As Christians and much of the secular world are well aware, these holidays originally had nothing to do with a jolly red-clothed man or egg hunts and cute bunnies.
Rather, they only exist because they are celebrations of the redeeming Christ—an essential reality that is emphatically denied through the redefinition of the holidays in Rise. In a scene that neatly puts the finger (or paw) on the issue, Bunny describes how Easter “is new beginnings and new life” (not at all tied to Christ or salvation), and he says of himself delivering eggs to children, “I’m bringing hope with me.” When his traditional egg-delivery job falls through, Bunny announces, “Easter is hope and now it’s gone.”
An additional replacement for God in this movie is a bit more subtle, but arguably the most dangerous of all. Humans, or more specifically children, are ultimately given the power that determines the fate of their world and even the Guardians. Viewers are told throughout the film that belief is what makes the Guardians visible, but they still exist without that belief. Yet as the story progresses, the kids’ power is revealed to be much greater than that—their belief or unbelief, their fear or resistance to fear decide whether the earth is saved from Pitch and whether the Guardians live or die.
This misplaced power leads to a disturbing moment that is instead intended to inspire, in which a young boy says to Pitch, who is also called The Boogeyman, “I do believe in you. I’m just not afraid of you.” A film that teaches children to believe in the existence of The Boogeyman and convinces them that they are in ultimate control of their lives and the world is not likely to make the top choices for family viewing in any conservative home, and wisely so.
If one argues that children won’t take this movie seriously enough to actually absorb its message, then Rise would be stripped of its meaning and therefore rendered pointless to watch. If the opposite is true (which this reviewer considers more likely), and young viewers learn the worldview presented in Rise, then it would be the fall of the real guardians—parents and the like—to let little ones watch and believe.
Check out these movies instead:
The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising (Walden Media, 2007)
Arthur Christmas (Aardman Animations, 2011)
The Incredibles (Disney, 2004)