Rise-of-the-Guardians-UK-Quad-PosterThere’s been a lot of talk about the decline of Pixar after the sub-standard Cars 2, followed what many perceived to be a relatively slight effort in the form of the Highlands-set Brave. But its naïve to think that a studio who produced Toy Story 3 and Wall-E within the last five years have lost their mojo, so perhaps the more interesting discussion to be had is about the rate at which their competitors are catching up. Dreamworks Animation is a great case in point. After spending far too long in the Shrek business, they finally started to show more visual flair with Kung Fu Panda, before in 2010 producing one of the best all-round animated movies in recent memory with their book adaptation, How to Train Your Dragon. After pleasantly surprising with a trio of sequels/spin-offs (Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots, Madagascar 3) the studio have come awful close to their high watermark with another adaptation of sorts.

Rise of the Guardians thankfully isn’t a sequel to Zack Snyder’s curious owl movie, but rather a fresh tale based on the characters from William Joyce’s The Guardians of Childhood book series. Set in the present day – around 200 years after those books, which were origin stories of sorts – the movie presents Santa (Alec Baldwin), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) and the mute Sandman as the protectors of children around the world. They’re then forced to recruit the reluctant Jack Frost (Chris Pine) to join them after a new threat arrives in the form of Pitch (Jude Law).

Pitch is animation’s answer to The Avengers’ Loki – a singularly creepy, confident and erudite British villain. His plan is to plunge the world into darkness by making children fear him by sending them nightmares, and simultaneously stop them believing in the other Guardians. Handily that plan gives director Peter Ramsey the opportunity to show Pitch going after each of the Guardians individually, showcasing each of their individual powers and the worlds they come from. With visual consultants to turn to like Roger Deakins and Guillermo del Toro each location is vividly imagined, with every frame packed with detail from corner to corner – and unusually, so too out into the third dimension. Alexandre Desplat’s score (our interview with him here) wonderfully adapts to each location as some luscious sweeping camerawork captures the scenes, and those aspects combined make the movie a veritable treat for the senses.

But hand in hand with the epic visuals go intimate character moments, and each of the main characters (including Pitch) have solid arcs and clear motivations. Chris Pine, for example, may voice Jack Frost in a dull monotone, but his character’s journey to discover his past and his purpose is both moving and genuinely involving. Even the more derivative aspects of the movie (such as Santa’s elves which are a thinly veiled attempt to replicate Despicable Me’s minions) still kind of work, and it’s tough to find fault in the smaller details of a world that’s so easy to get swept up in.

Where fault may be found however is in the main thrust of the plot. Character explorations aside, the film unfolds into essentially one extended chase with the odd battle against Pitch thrown in here and there along the way. Visually it’s all there, but narratively you can’t help but feel there’s a lot being held back for potential further installments. Hold it up to the bona fide animated classics of the past decade and Rise of the Guardians would probably fall short, regardless of it being the best we’ve seen this year. Pixar clearly still have the edge when it comes to organic storytelling and can mine a deeper emotional well, but if Dreamworks’ latest effort is anything to go by then visually at least the playing field has been levelled.