Comparisons to this summer’s blockbuster The Avengers

by Mark Burger

Although it’s set a few days before Easter, there’s an unmistakable Christmas feel to Rise of the Guardians the animated big-screen adaptation of William Joyce’s popular children’s stories, which marks a noteworthy and laudable feature debut for director Peter Ramsey.

The heroes of the story are, of the course, the “Guardians,” whose membership includes such holiday heroes as Santa Claus (“North”), the Easter Bunny (“Bunny”), the Tooth Fairy (“Tooth”), the Sandman (“Sandy”) and Jack Frost (“Jack”). Each takes care of his or her own holiday or responsibility independent of the other, and occasionally there’s some bickering among them. (North has a tendency to boast that Christmas is by far the most popular of the holidays, which sometimes irks Bunny.)

All differences are and must be set aside with the unexpected return, and rise to power, of the Boogeyman (“Pitch Black”), making his malevolent move to spread fear and terror by convincing the world’s children that the Guardians don’t exist. If children don’t believe, then the Guardians truly will cease to exist. This, understandably, is a bad thing — especially for the Guardians.

Comparisons to this summer’s blockbuster The Avengers are hardly unwarranted, and are frankly unmistakable: Heroes band together to battle a force that threatens to plunge the world into fear. It worked in The Avengers and it works here. Rise of the Guardians never quite tops the initial clash between Pitch and the Guardians, a visually spectacular battle that leaves the Guardians battered and bewildered — yet still determined to save the day. Ultimately it falls to Jack Frost, whose forgotten past becomes pivotal to the proceedings, to emerge as the heroic conduit for their comeback.

Working from Joyce’s stories, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abare (a Pulitzer Prize winner for his play Rabbit Hole, which has absolutely nothing to do with the Easter Bunny) puts a slight spin on its familiar characters. North speaks with a guttural Eastern European accent, for example, and Bunny is a boomerang-brandishing Aussie, but it’s all in good fun and won’t upset “purists.”

There’s a nice message about friendship and faith, only appropriate for the setting and circumstances, and the special effects (whether seen in 2-D or 3-D) are of the highest caliber. Director Ramsey keeps things moving at a heady, steady clip that never allows the action to flag.

A talented voiceover cast includes Chris Pine (Jack), Alec Baldwin (North), Hugh Jackman (Bunny) and Isla Fisher (Tooth). In the tradition of Harpo Marx, Sandy never speaks but always gets his point across. Jude Law is especially fun as the wicked Pitch, clearly relishing and reveling in his nastiness. Fear not, however, for he’ll get his in the end. After all, that’s what happens to those who are naughty.

Barrymore is not a great play and not a great movie — although it’s certainly acceptable on both counts. But it’s a truly great opportunity to see a great actor — in this case, Christopher Plummer (re-creating his Tony Award-winning stage role) — in a great, tour-de-force performance.

As the title indicates, he’s playing John Barrymore, the Great Profile and the crown (clown?) prince of one of America’s most esteemed acting families, as well as a man whose antics and escapades, both sexual and alcoholic, have earned as much, if not more, notoriety than his acting abilities. “I’m so far gone, I haven’t left yet,” he laments — one of many telling lines in director Erik Camuel’s screenplay, adapted from William Luce’s play.

Combining humor and pathos with staggering ease, Plummer’s Barrymore discusses his failed marriages, drunken misadventures and career highlights in a (sometimes boozy) stream of consciousness. He occasionally banters with Frank (John Plumpis), an off-stage prompter who alternates between being Barrymore’s sounding board and whipping boy. The character of Frank is clearly a device to propel Barrymore from one topic to the other, a device more commonly used in theater than in film. Aside from a few attempts to “open up” the story with visual effects, Barrymore is very much a theatrical endeavor — and quite proud of it.

The real John Barrymore died in 1942, barely 60 years old. Plummer’s got a few years on him (more than 20, in fact), but like the real John Barrymore his weathered looks don’t mask the beauty that remains, however faded. Plummer doesn’t try to hide his age, yet he brings an impressive energy to the proceedings — probably far more than the real John Barrymore could have at the end of his life. It’s also sheer pleasure to see him, in any context, reciting Shakespeare. (Few do it better.)

For admirers of Christopher Plummer, John Barrymore and theater in general, Barrymore is a fitting tribute to all three.

Barrymore will be screened at the Hanesbrands Theatre (209 N. Spruce St., Winston-Salem) at 8 pm Friday (Dec. 14), 8 pm Monday (Dec. 17) and 7:30 p.m. Thursday (Dec. 20). Tickets are $18 (general admission), $15 (student with valid ID). For advance tickets or more information, call 336.747.1414 or visit the official website: .www.