To believe, or not to believe. That's the core question in Rise of the Guardians, an animated adventure making childhood icons into something more — not always better — than generations have imagined.
In Peter Ramsey's movie, Santa Claus looks, sounds and swaggers like a Russian mobster. The Easter Bunny resembles Donnie Darko's imaginary tormentor, and the Tooth Fairy seems pulled from a Cirque du Soleil show. Only Jack Frost has the icicle-slick appearance and prankish streak we expect, but with a fragile ego that isn't.
Jack, voiced by Chris Pine, is the lone member of this group whom children can't see. They think he exists in nose-nipping name only, since the snow days and sledding conditions he causes are acts of nature, and don't come with gifts, candy or money under a pillow. For Jack personally, the question is: to finally be believed in, or not.
That's never an issue for Santa (Alec Baldwin), Bunny (Hugh Jackman) and Tooth (Isla Fisher), who along with the adorably mute Sandman compose the Guardians, keeping the world's children secure and happy. Sandman's specialty is pleasant dreams but that's being challenged by the devilish Pitch Black (Jude Law), who has created a way to make nightmares of every dream.
The Guardians would be left powerless, with every child too frightened to believe. They need reinforcements to battle Pitch, and the all-knowing Man in the Moon chooses Jack.
It's an old-fashioned outline for family fun that Ramsey and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire, adapting William Joyce's book, give pleasantly subversive twists. Rise of the Guardians offers an amusing contrast, designed like a reverent Hallmark holiday card that you open to find a Shoebox joke inside.
The movie spends too much time in Santa's souped-up sleigh for my taste, but that's just Ramsey doing the 3-D roller coaster thing. The optical illusion is employed better in quieter, less comical scenes, such as Jack's flashback to a childhood crisis and Sandman's granular vapor trails curling into children's windows at night.
Sandman's only means of communication — he could be voiced by Teller — are thought symbols of sand above his head. That's funnier than Santa's elves, who are merely Despicable Me's Minions regifted. The Yetis doing the heavy lifting in Santa's workshop are amusing, though. Ramsey's best gag is of the sight variety; look for it at the end of the Guardians' race to cover Tooth's beat before kids wake up disappointed.
Baldwin's rumbling voice and hammy accent makes Santa less jolly than usual, and Jackman has a ball spoofing his Australian heritage, complete with boomerang and a healthy dose of hooliganism. The vocal standout is Law's sinister Pitch, a sharply drawn villain providing good kinds of scares for younger viewers. Rise of the Guardians is an all-star addition to holiday movies lists but the real question is: Which holiday?
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365.