A promotional shot from Rise of the Guardians by Peter Ramsey
As it happens every year at the Rome Film Festival, a portion of the Alice nella Città – Alice in the City youth selection is dedicated to animated movies. This year the honor of being presented to a huge audience of Italian kids who're going to select the best youth-oriented movie of the festival went to three very different, but equally enchanting movies: Wreck-It Ralph from Disney, Rise of the Guardians from Dreamworks and Kirikou et les hommes et les femmes directed by French master Michel Ocelot.
Wreck-It Ralph comes from the minds of Simpsons, Futurama and Drawn Together director Rich Moore and it brings some of those TV series' personality to the big screen, mixed with a convincing dose of Disney emotion, as the usual morality of Disney is woven together with delicious adult sarcasm (the best idea of the movie: a therapy session for villains held by one of the ghosts of Pac-Man). The story follows the adventures of a video game villain as he struggles to be accepted as a hero, and eventually finds friendship and his place in life in doing so. The Drawn Together connection is quite evident as Moore uses different kinds of designs and animation styles to bring together a wide collection of beloved characters who will warm up any gamer's heart, from Donkey Kong lookalikes to Sonic the Hedgehog. The result is a fun pastiche that makes the best of the different characters and locations put on display and sends the viewer on a unique journey that goes from a cockroach alien-infested apocalyptic world to a sugary candyland literally in a matter of minutes.
Besides the visual spectacle and the fun of seeing all these characters together, the movie also has something to say about being who you want to be, a theme that is maybe not wholly original in modern animated movies from the US but that works here coupled with the lovely use of computer lingo (the outcast is a glitch, the true villain of the story is a virus, and an emotional backstory is merely how a character was programmed).
Kirikou et les hommes et les femmes – Kirikou and the Men and the Women is the third chapter in the adventures of the small African kid with fast feet and a quick wit. As happened in the previous installment the movie is an anthology of several stories, all dealing with Kirikou finding unexpected affiliations to all kinds of different people (the second film, Kirikou et les bêtes sauvages – Kirikou and the Wild Animals, used the same approach, with animals instead of humans). As often happens in anthology films not all episodes work, with one about Kirikou and his village's elder being a particular misfire, but other episodes are beautifully constructed, the highlight being the encounter between Kirikou and a lost Tuareg boy. Kirikou's friends fear the foreigner and his pale skin that makes him look sick as much as they're suspicious about his clothes, which appear ridiculous to their joyful nudity, but Kirikou, being the wise little speedster that he is, makes them understand that different doesn't necessarily mean bad. It's a good message delivered in the simplest, most basic way and Ocelot's sincerely naive world is a welcome change when compared to the fast-moving, manic and pop-reference saturated animation we see every year from the US.
A scene from Rise of the Guardians by Peter Ramsey
Rise of the Guardians is the true animated surprise of the festival. Directed by story board artist wiz Peter Ramsey (whose credits include A.I., Being John Malkovich, The Grinch and Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, among others) and with executive producer Guillermo Del Toro handling some of the designs, the movie is inspired by the book series The Guardians of Childhood by author and Academy Award-winning director William Joyce. It follows the battle between the evil Boogeyman (voiced by Jude Law and very reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes' Voldemort), intent on bringing fear to all the children of the world, and the Guardians of hope (Hugh Jackman's hilarious jackaroo Easter Bunny), wonder (Alec Baldwin's swashbuckling Russian Santa Claus), dreams (the silent and mysterious Sandman), memories (Isla Fisher's enthusiastic Tooth Fairy) and fun (Chris Pine's mischievous Jack Frost).
Following the success of How to Train Your Dragon, which won audiences and critics alike for being one of the first Dreamworks animated projects that relied more on story and characters rather than cheap humor, Rise of the Guardians is a movie specifically designed to capture the viewer in a world that is whimsical, but where danger feels real. It's the world of every child's imagination, in which these characters come alive. As Ramsey said during the press conference, the goal of the movie was to put the audience, especially the adult audience, in a state of mind that allows the primal emotional connection we felt to these characters during our earliest childhood to come back to the surface, so that we're not only entertained by them, but we actually see them as real beings to whom we can entrust our emotions. All that is achieved through the wise use of Ramsey and Del Toro's imaginative designs which turn the Tooth Fairy's kingdom into a steampunk South American paradise and the Easter Bunny's world into an ancient and vaguely religious spirit land inspired by Hayao Miyazaki. These bold design choices immediately make the audience feel welcome in a world that is definitely other-worldly, but that never overshadows the all-too-human joy the Guardians feel in making children happy and hopeful, and the sorrow they experience as that hope is taken away by Fear itself.
The Guardians' worlds and personalities come together beautifully in a movie that still manages to be genuinely fun (thanks to an adorable cast of silent supporting characters), truly poignant (Jack Frost will make you cry), and surprisingly epic, as all our childhood's best dreams and play-pretend games used to be.