Haven’t we run out of iconic beings to cluster in po-mo kids’ movies yet? The Shrek films clustered together characters such as Pinocchio, the Gingerbread Man, Rumpelstiltskin, and Puss ‘n Boots, and more recently, Hotel Transylvania gave us a zippy comic adventure involving Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the gang. So, on cue, here’s Rise of the Guardians, an animated film that brings together Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Sandman in an unlikely alliance to protect childhood innocence from evil and fear, like a fairy-tale variation on The Avengers. And as much as its premise may sound like the start of a bad joke, Peter Ramsey’s movie preserves just enough genuine childhood wonder in its whooshing, high-tech theatrics to make it a delight.
The conceit here is that the Guardians are about to gain a new member: Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine), a young and brash kid who can turn anything into ice and doesn’t seem to quite adhere to the age-old, noble, self-giving codes of this magical collective. (The Easter Bunny, charmingly voiced by Hugh Jackman in a full-on Australian accent, certainly doesn’t think much of the guy.) It’s all part of a renewed effort to fight a gathering evil: Pitch Black (Jude Law), a.k.a. the Bogeyman, is marshaling his forces in an effort to destroy childhood dreams and replace them with nightmares and darkness. So basically everybody’s screwed if the Guardians don’t get the job done.
The story is based on a series of books written by children’s author William Joyce, and at times it displays a patience with character and plot that feels downright quaint nowadays. (The script was written by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire.) The opening scene shows us Jack Frost discovering his powers, in a scene that’s somehow both joyous and melancholy: He marvels at his newfound abilities, and yet is horrified at the fact that he’s invisible to the rest of the world, because nobody really believes in him. The story mines a surprising amount of pathos from Jack's predicament; your heart goes out to the guy every time a kid passes through his spectral frame without noting his existence. There's a structural elegance to it, too, as it turns out that this is part of Pitch's Evil Plan. He can defeat all of the Guardians if he can stop the world's children from believing in them. Indeed, one of the best things about the film is that it gives us a villain who is scary in both conception and execution. Half-shrouded in perpetual darkness, Pitch is followed around by black granite clouds wherever he goes; when he strikes, they turn into tentacles that suck all life and color out of everything they touch. Whoever designed him appears to have tapped into the same raw fear of grim, angular menace that the animators of Disney's classic Sleeping Beauty did when they dreamed up Maleficent.
This is 2012, however, and traditional childhood heroes and resonant, creepy villains won’t be enough to keep the kids’ (or the adults’) attention, so there’s also plenty of whooshing and swooping and dazzling 3-D eye candy to spare. Santa Claus (here called North, and voiced by Alec Baldwin with a Russian accent) can't just have any ordinary sled; he's got a giant Millennium Falcon–esque contraption that roller-coasters around at warp speed and terrifies newbie passengers. (He’s also got a Yeti honor guard, which is pretty funny.) Not unlike Wreck-It Ralph, with its retro video-game aesthetic wedded to eye-popping action sequences, part of the kick here is seeing familiar, old-fashioned figures in hypermodern situations. And, to its credit, the whole thing looks amazing — Roger Deakins and Guillermo del Toro served as technical guides, so that’s perhaps to be expected. The result is an effective combination of the new and old. It's both hip and gooey enough to make me look forward to the inevitable sequel.