‘Rise of the Guardians’ fantasy-adventure film: A secularist tale

AP This film image released by DreamWorks Animation shows the character Jamie, voiced by Dakota Goyo, left, as he awakens … Continued


This film image released by DreamWorks Animation shows the character Jamie, voiced by Dakota Goyo, left, as he awakens to find The Guardians, from second left, Tooth, voiced by Isla Fisher, Jack Frost, voiced by Chris Pine, North, voiced by Alec Baldwin, Sandman, and Bunnymund, voiced by Hugh Jackman in a scene from “Rise of the Guardians.”

I’m always amazed and grateful of secularist attempts at retelling Christian truths to make them more “palatable” to members of that community.

This may sound like I’m being facetious but I’m actually being serious. Guillermo del Toro and Dreamworks Productions have produced an outstanding, visually-rich and entertaining film in “Rise of the Guardians.”

The movie posits a secret legion of super legends, known as “The Guardians,” including Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman and Jack Frost who have been called together by the Man-on-the-Moon for the sole purpose of protecting the world’s children.

There are more than a sufficient number of comical moments and unexpected revelations throughout the movie.

Apparently, Santa is actually a bodybuilder with a thick Russian accent, has major tattoos on both arms, wields two sabers simultaneously better than the average Cossack and he employs yeti instead of elves in his workshop (it seems elves aren’t very skilled with tools.) The Tooth Fairy, though very pleasant, is obsessed with everyone’s oral health. Sandman, responsible for children’s pleasant dreams, was the first of the Guardians to fall in the film’s epic battle of good and evil. He willingly laid down his life so that others might live—no greater love does a (Sand)man have. But like many subordinate male characters who disappear during the first act, he returned triumphantly in the second act, three days later, to save the day—and the bacon of the other Guardians.

But art, without conflict, is impossible—or at least very boring. Thus, our valiant band is called to defeat a horror that hasn’t reared its ugly head in 800 years—Pitch Black, AKA the Boogeyman. Pitch is tired of being ignored and wants to destroy the totality of the world’s hope, joy, dreams and fun replacing it with fear by using his army of shadowy, horse-like Nightmares (I suspect most children didn’t get the pun.)

Jack Frost, a rebellious teen who has been “finding himself” for the previous 300 years since becoming the personification of winter’s cold, is recruited by the Guardians and the Man-on-the-Moon. For most of the movie, Jack is a selfish loner and ambiguously amoral. In fact, the Boogeyman tries to recruit him as he embarks on his own personal Reign of Terror.

Photo credit: Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation


This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Jack Frost, voiced by Chris Pine, left, and Tooth, voiced by Isla Fisher in a scene from “Rise of the Guardians.”

The all-knowing, all-seeing, omnipresent, Man-on-the-Moon Guardian, who watches and protects all children from far above is an obvious reference to God while the Boogeyman is a perfect secular interpretation of Satan—an individual who is selfish, malevolent, violent, despotic and cruel. Not coincidently, Pitch Black the Fearmonger, is ultimately destroyed and chained in his subterranean pit by fear itself—even the Boogeyman isn’t immune to fear. Children who have hope and light in their lives, however, are immune to it.

But, here again, secularism, bereft of its own, native moral principles and original concepts must condescend to borrow its relevant ideas, once again, from Christianity. With the help of the Man-on-the-Moon, Jack comes to a personal revelation that selfishness is worthless and ineffective while compassion for others is life-giving.

Even with this cursory synopsis, most Christians would immediately recognize the parallels, if not outright lifting of dozens of Christian motifs, themes, tropes and topoi in “Rise of the Guardians.” Again, I don’t mean this as a criticism as I was thoroughly impressed with this film. I enjoyed it for several reasons. The animation was rich and vivid though the 3D effect added little, if anything, to the film. The story was original and casting superb. Alec Baldwin added much mirth to Santa Claus’ girth and Jude Law was the perfect baddie.

What I found most extraordinary about “Rise of the Guardians” was how though the film’s writers, directors and producers wanted to make a completely secular film, they had to rely completely upon two most important Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter, and their respective legends to create this film. There are no awe-inspiring, existentially-important and engaging secular holidays or life-giving atheist principals. To push back the fear and hopelessness of life, you need a religion. To tell an engaging story, the writers, directors and producers of “Rise of the Guardians” had to insert every conceivable Christian principle, concept and virtue in order to do so. If secularism could offer something meaningful, del Toro would have portrayed this story sans the Christian references and allusions. To be clear, I have no doubt that some atheist/secularist claptrap could be cobbled together but it wouldn’t be meaningful because atheism/secularism can’t offer anything existentially uplifting to the world—their philosophies (e.g., objectivism, nihilism, Malthusianism, eugenics, scientism, fascism, communism, Nietzscheism, hedonism, materialism, consumerism, jingoism, anarchism, sociobiology), are anechoic, flaccid, monotonous and flatulent.

All-in-all, “Rise of the Guardians” is an excellent movie because it addresses the important human issues of hope and fear, life and death, good and evil, altruism and narcissism. Both secularists and theists can find common ground in this delightful and emotionally-moving film. Hopefully this film will motivate secularists to rethink their stands on certain important issues relevant to their humanity. After all, the Easter Bunny doesn’t really exist but Easter and the Reason for that Season really does. If not, what was this movie about?

Interestingly, the difference between this secularist film and its Christian equivalent is that the former was written by people who don’t actually believe these principals have any place in the world of adults but are made instead for gullible children. But, regardless of their motives, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny mean nothing without the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter and Christmas and Easter mean nothing without Christ and Christianity.

Joy is distinct from happiness in that the latter is ephemeral and transitory, dependent upon whether or not the current situation is to one’s liking. Joy, on the other hand, is a permanent outlook on life allowing an individual to navigate the vicissitudes and vagaries of our respective existences. Though secularists make many grand claims, they’ve yet to produce a truly joyous secularist. To be joyous, you need to give yourself over to others completely in unselfish universal brotherhood.

Ultimately, “Rise of the Guardians” is only magical realism, because, as we all know, Jack Frost and the Sandman don’t actually exist and, if they did exist, they’ve failed to inspire adults to lead good, altruistic and joyful lives—such is the emptiness of secularism. I’m glad I saw “Rise of the Guardians” and I’m even gladder secularists are dependent upon our eternal message in order to cobble together theirs.

Angelo Stagnaro is an author, journalist and a stage magician who has served as editor in chief of the online magicians’ monthly electronic magazine Smoke & Mirrors

  • Paul Gibbons

    What a nice review and a pile of nonsense.
    To say
    There are no awe-inspiring, existentially-important and engaging secular holidays or life-giving atheist principals. To push back the fear and hopelessness of life, you need a religion.

    is ethnocentric claptrap… Carl Sagan, Einstein, Feynman and most scientists find beauty, pleasure and meaning in the universe without having to make up super natural explanations for things…

    Jack Frost is as real as God, and Sandman as real as the ‘religious’ Jesus (there was a historical Jesus)… You God is no more plausible than the tooth fairy – and if you read the old testament – a more evil character has never existed in literature.

    It is a pity that adults (some) still find they have to look to fairy tales for meaning – where the world is beautiful, complex, interesting, inspiring, and uplifting all by itself – without requiring Superman to make it more so.

  • lgipe

    Good try, Mr. Stagnaro. A tad defensive in that Christian-way, but good try.

    As an athiest, I happily watched the alternative myths trotted out in “Rise” and my 10-year old daughter, naturally, had a blast during this movie.

    Far from being “dependent” on your ancient messages, the actual idea of a secular re-telling of narratives of belief is to throw out the tons of chauvinist, bigoted, violent, judgmental, anti-gay garbage that clogs your “Bible” and retain the parts that healthy, normal people – religious or not – happen to believe in. The parts about compassion,sharing, life-giving affirmation, free will (oh, not that, but atheists like it).
    Your “Bible” didn’t invent those, btw – if you look at history, there are plenty of precedents for those basic, moral tenets.
    What you should be very worried about in “Rise”, Mr. S, is the scene where Jamie, the little believer, asks for a sign. “Any sign, and I’ll believe”, he says.
    In the film, Jack Frost provides one, and becomes animated as a real person. In religion, no such sign has EVER plausibly been entered into the modern day canon. How many evangelicals have struggled with that cliché: Show me a sign, Lord Jesus…the makers of “Rise” suggest that that question should be asked… and answered.

    After the film, I discussed with my daughter the idea of faith and belief. She said in so many words, that tales are tales, but we should believe in ourselves, our potential; she also mentioned our duty to save the planet (never much of a Christian concern, for sure), and help the homeless and the sick. That’s how the daughter of an atheist rolls and she never went to church a day.

  • DavidJ9

    Sounds like the filmmakers were inspired by Terry Pratchett, particularly his book “Hogfather”, to retell tales that have been around a long time.


    You really don’t have anything real to write about,do you?


    +1 for noticing that.

  • edbyronadams

    Atheists do understand evolution, don’t they? What is the evolutionary advantage of altruism beyond those sharing your genes?

    It is anti Darwinian on its face and it only exists in our psycholgical makeup because of closed gene pools that give rise to xenophobia and genocide. You can’t have one without the other.

    The problem with atheism is the pollyanna view that the dark side doesn’t exist and the consequent failure to produce any reason for not acting naturally in all impulses.

  • gonnagle

    Funny how he forgot to mention the ism that stands out above all those mentioned; humanism. That our humanity defines us. Also, its a bit rich for him to claim the story pinched the best of Christianity when it had already done the pinching in the first place. It is said there are only 7 basic stories. Both the ‘ rise of the guardians’ and ‘the bible’ are just variations. With neither having any more meaning or validity than the other.

  • ThomasBaum

    You wrote, “Both the ‘ rise of the guardians’ and ‘the bible’ are just variations. With neither having any more meaning or validity than the other.”

    Is this a “valid” statement or merely your opinion?

  • gonnagle

    You are right. It is just my opinion. I can’t prove ‘rise of the guardians’ has no validity.

  • Sadetec

    “What I found most extraordinary about “Rise of the Guardians” was how though the film’s writers, directors and producers wanted to make a completely secular film, they had to rely completely upon two most important Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter, and their respective legends to create this film…”

    Those would be the two most important Christian holidays that were ‘borrowed’ from previous Pagan religions? Those would be the respective legends that were inherited from said Pagan religions when the holidays were ‘borrowed’?

  • Sadetec


    There isn’t anything in atheism or secularism that rejects the dark side of human nature — that would be denying something that is self evident, and it is simply dishonest to suggest otherwise. What secularism rejects is the notion that we need to swear allegiance to supernatural forces such as a man in the sky (and all the associated scaffolding of rituals, bigotry and divisiveness) in order to understand it.

    The secular view is that our nature is both good and bad (as shaped by evolutionary forces), but we have a track record of the good outweighing the bad. So slowly man progresses, and becomes more open and more tolerant. And by looking into ourselves, understanding our psychology and reflecting on our nature, we can better understand our weaknesses and perhaps avoid them.

    It is perhaps ironic that today, in the 21st century, the positive forces of inclusiveness, openness and tolerance (such as equality for the LGBT community) are firmly associated with progressive secularism, while the negative backward facing forces of conservatism are most often allied around religion.

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