Weary shoppers-with-kids could do worse for a break than Rise of the Guardians, the flashy new animated adventure now playing at a mall near you. Based on William Joyce's The Guardians of Childhood book series, Peter Ramsey's film takes Joyce's high concept—a superheroic team-up of kid-myth characters—and runs with it, allowing surly teen Jack Frost to discover himself and locate his vocation with the help of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Sandman. Though not religious, it's a faith-based tale of sorts, with baddie the Boogeyman (Jude Law)—a.k.a. Pitch, the Nightmare King—threatening to make kids believe only in fear and no longer in the heroes who "guard" them.
Santa, or "North" (Alec Baldwin), turns out to be a tattooed, muscle-bound Russian, and the Guardian of Wonder. He leads a motley crew that includes Australian boomerang-flinger Bunnymund (Hugh Jackman), the Guardian of Hope; half-hummingbird Tooth (Isla Fisher), the Guardian of Memories; and Sandy, the wide-eyed, close mouthed Guardian of Dreams. Jack Frost (Chris Pine), who's invisible and therefore a practiced loner, resists joining the Guardians, but if he's to overcome his own personal darkness, he may just need to stop Pitch from plunging the world into what could be literal darkness.
All this talk of darkness—plus the involvements of Pulitzer-Prize-winning dramatist David Lindsay-Abaire as screenwriter and Guillermo del Toro as Joyce's fellow executive producer)—signify something slightly weightier than your Shreks and Madagascars, which is wise. But Ramsey is no Tim Burton: the results are sufficiently mainstream, and at times even merry, as when Frost brightens the day of a group of kids by enabling some icy extreme sports on a smalltown Main Street.
The knock against Rise of the Guardians is its loose narrative's lurching pace, but at a trim 97 minutes, the story's awkward patches don't do much damage. Those bred on the warmer classic Disney style may also find this DreamWorks venture a bit icy in its near-photo-real CGI, but one can't deny the film is frequently visually resplendent and imaginative, as with the dancing sand imagery of Sandy and the creeping shadows of Pitch (as per modern standards, Ramsey overdoes it a bit with his swooping and/or "handheld" "camera").
So even if the cause and effect of the plot proves fairly impenetrable (expect a fair amount of "What's happening, Mommy?"), focus attention on the peppy vocal performances, the eye candy, and the cute critters: puttering elves and flitting fairies straight out of CGI Central casting.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]