THE PITCH: The four "guardians of childhood" - Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Eater Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and the voiceless Sandman - recruit mischievous Jack Frost (Chris Pine) to combat the boogeyman Pitch Black (Jude Law) and his scheme to supplant children's faith in the guardians with fear.
BEST LINE: "We're very busy bringing joy to children. We don't have time... for children," Santa protests when Jack suggests they spend more time playing with young ones. Guardians briefly resembles one of those family movies about workaholic parents who neglect their kids.
WORSE LINE: "We'll always be there. And now, we'll always be here," Jack tells his young pal Jamie (Dakota Goyo) while pointing at his heart.
BEST LINE READING: Baldwin gives Santa Claus an extravagant Russian accent, and when the Guardians think Jack was meeting with the boogeyman, it sounds like he asks, "You were with Bitch?"
THANKSGIVING FEAST FOR THE EYES: Guardians raises the bar for computer animated visual effects, from the mosaic patterns of Tooth's palace to the plump shapes and sandy grains of the Sandman's visible dreams. The film even offers a fresh take on Santa's workshop and its mixture of high tech and old world craftsmanship, with yeti building toys that resemble Transformers and Guitar Hero instruments.
CUT TO THE CHASE. CHASE. REPEAT. Like most 3D Pixar-era CGI features, Guardians features frequent chase scenes, including a boy's high-speed sled ride through town thanks to Jack's ice; Santa's vaguely steampunk sleigh launching through a mountain tunnel; Jack and the Sandman chasing Pitch's equine nightmares; the Guardians competing to help the Tooth Fairy gather the most teeth in a night; and more.
GRATUITOUS POP REFERENCE: For a DreamWorks cartoon feature, Guardians goes refreshingly easy on pop culture footnotes, with the exception of the Australian, kangaroo-like Easter Bunny. During the race to gather the baby teeth, Bunny taunts Jack like Crocodile Dundee: "You call that a bag of choppers? Now that's a bag of choppers."
PEDIGREE: It's based on a series of books co-authored by William Joyce, who won a Best Animated Short Academy Award this year for "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore." A longtime favorite of parents for his hip, retro sensibility, Joyce has helped shape such films as Robots,Meet the Robinsons and next year's Epic as well as the TV shows "Rolie Polie Olie" and "George Shrinks."
CUT OUT DURING THE CREDITS? Renee Fleming's song "Still Dream" sounds more operatic and less pop-oriented than the usual family movie fare. About mid-way through the credits the film offers a droll little epilogue if you want to hang out.
RELIGIOUS SUBTEXT: Despite being global guardians of childhood, Santa and Bunny clearly stand for Christian holidays, raising odd theological implications. On the other hand, the all-seeing yet enigmatic Man in the Moon watches over all yet refuses to explain himself to Jack, giving the film an intriguingly mature existential dimension.
HEY, WAIT A MINUTE: As the source of all snow days, Jack's a fun guy and all - but does the provider of frost bite really qualify as a guardian of children?
THE BOTTOM LINE: If Hallmark Greeting Cards created The Avengers, the end result would look a lot like Rise of the Guardians, which even has a Loki-like English bad guy. Jack's puckish personality and the importance of belief borrow a lot from Peter Pan's clap-if-you-believe-in-fairies scene. Ultimately the film's emotions feel even more programmed than its visual effects. The Rise of the Guardians coffee table book probably proves more satisfying while being equally gorgeous.
Rise of the Guardians. 2 stars. Directed by Peter Ramsey. Stars the voices of Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin. Rated PG. Opens Wed., Nov. 21. At area theaters.
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