Santa Claus has been brought to the screen for decades as a jolly gift giver making kids' dreams come true, with the occasional divergence as a killer purging his naughty list.
In “Rise of the Guardians,” director Peter Ramsey and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire envision him as a big-bellied, tattooed Russian named North (voiced by Alec Baldwin). He’s a Guardian, along with some familiar but equally imaginative recreations of familiar fictions: an Australian jack-rabbit, Bunny (Hugh Jackman) the Easter Bunny; an eccentric dwarf-like scientist, the silent Sandman; the bicuspid-obsessed tooth fairy Tooth (Isla Fisher), supported by a sorority of mini-me helpers.
Together, they protect kids from the menace of bad dreams and dashed hopes. Guardians are, of course, only needed if someone’s trying to do harm, and minutes into Ramsey’s adventure we learn that Pitch Black (a devious Jude Law), the boogeyman and overlord of nightmares, has returned from the shadows for the first time since the Dark Ages to torment, terrorize and otherwise frighten the children of the world.
The Man in the Moon, the oft-unseen Guardian leader who communicates via hologram images, alerts the Guardians to the threat and commissions them to add Jack Frost (Chris Pine) to their number as they battle Pitch.
Jack is a mischievous fellow who flies around the world delivering winter fun to unaware youths. While his antics have miffed the Easter Bunny in the past, the Guardians accept him as their own as they set out to stop Pitch. But Jack wears the guardianship heavily. He has no memory of how he came to be, or knowledge of why the Man in the Moon chose him to become a Guardian.
Drawing from author William Joyce’s children’s stories, Lindsay-Abaire’s "Guardians" each not only protect children but guard an aspect of childhood. Santa protects the wonder of children, the Easter Bunny protects their hope, the Tooth Fairy protects their memories. Jack has no idea what he’s supposed to be protecting.
Lindsay-Abaire’s telling relies heavily on characters explaining what’s going on, and with a relatively inexperienced director, this means the characters end up standing around and talking when they could be doing something. Additionally, the plot as a whole teeters on the fine line between imaginative and ridiculous, especially regarding the Tooth fairy.
When it’s focused on the faith of the children whose belief bolsters the Guardians it’s a magical film. When it delves into the Tooth fairy’s obsession with molars or the Guardians’ awe at their own positions of power, it gets a bit silly.
"Rise of the Guardians" is no "Toy Story." You won't find complex comedy or hidden cultural nuggets for adults to glean and children to discover later. All the entertainment is right there on the surface, in the physical jokes of Jack Rabbit losing his power and shrinking to the size of an actual bunny or when Sandman accidentally puts several of the Guardians to sleep.
That said, it’s still a DreamWorks production. Ramsey captures the wonder audiences have come to expect from the studio. It’s in the high-flying imagination and great camera angles of “How To Train Your Dragon” and “Monsters, Inc.,” on which Ramsey was head of story. It’s also in Ramsey’s own constructions – Sandman’s dreams, Pitch’s nightmares, Santa’s workshop, a wizardly battle between Pitch and Jack. But those wonders appear and disappear, barely lasting long enough to be appreciated before the next ones arrive. A few are even spooky, as producer Guillermo del Toro’s creative vision becomes apparent in a scene involving a decaying bed covering a deep well-like hole, a la “The Ring.”
That darkness is quickly replaced by the continual march of creative genius as the children of the world, and the audience, are swept up in the magic of bumbling elves, high-speed sleigh rides and childlike faith that saves the day.