Despite the confusing connection between their vaguely heroic titles, “Rise of the Guardians” is not a sequel — nor, for that matter, a prequel — to Zack Snyder’s straight-faced 2010 computer-animation “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole." Rather, it is a DreamWorks-produced, CGI-rendered adaptation of William Joyce’s bestselling children’s series “The Guardians of Childhood,” in which the eponymous protectors are much more festive and much less feathery: standing side by side are timeless fairy tale figures Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Sandman, reimagined and reinvented as super-powered action heroes bravely battling the forces of darkness. Think of them as the Avengers for preschoolers.
When not dealing with their own seasonal business (building toys at the North Pole, making chocolate eggs, etc.), the Guardians unite to protect the children of the world from those who seek to harm them. They’re an international team: North, popularly known as Santa (Alec Baldwin, “30 Rock”), is a Russian macho man; E. Aster Bunnymund, aka the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman, “Real Steel”), is a boomerang-wielding Australian warrior; Tooth, aka the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fischer, “Rango”), is a bubbly American mishmash of Tinkerbell and a bird of paradise; and Sandy, aka the Sandman, is a short, stout mute who can instantly construct any object out of sand, from a windproof umbrella to a fully functioning fighter plane.
They’re about to get a new member. The Man in the Moon, who recruits all Guardians, has chosen winter spirit Jack Frost (Chris Pine, “This Means War”), bringer of blizzards, to join the squad. Jack, a 300-year-old teenager with silver hair and a magic staff, has a bit of a problem: he’s invisible to children, who walk right through him as if he were thin air. This is apparently thanks to their lack of faith in him: while many believe in Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and the Sandman, nobody believes in Jack Frost. With the aid of the Guardians, he hopes to one day gain the faith of the world’s children and ultimately prove himself to be a hero worthy of the legendary troupe.
It’s a gimmicky but promising concept that should illicit squeals of delight from younger viewers when realised on-screen. Oddly, however, the interaction of the Guardians is lacklustre. There’s not as much joy in the company of these classic holiday icons as there was in watching the interaction of, say, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and The Incredible Hulk in “The Avengers,” or Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis in “The Expendables.” It doesn’t help matters much that, as a personality and a presence, Jack Frost is as blank as snow, nor that the ill-tempered Easter Bunny is strangely intimidating, nor that jolly ol’ Saint Nick — with his burly figure, heavily tattooed forearms and Eastern-European growls — looks and sounds like a serial killer.
The villain is an evil spirit named Pitch Black, who often refers to himself as the boogey man. With a deathly pale complexion, piercing yellow eyes and a full set of sharp fangs, Pitch certainly looks the part, and, as voiced with diabolical menace by Jude Law (“Contagion”), he sounds it too. Tired of being routinely ignored by children, he plans to strike fear into their hearts and rid them of their faith, thus giving him strength and destroying the reputation of his arch-nemeses, the Guardians. A typical English villain, Pitch sneers and monologues endlessly, and has a dark, demonic swagger that younger viewers might find rather frightening.
There are spectacular sequences, as when the Guardians first take Santa’s sleigh for a spin, darting at breakneck speed through twisting tunnels of razor-sharp icicles. Or a sequence in which they frantically collect teeth from under children’s pillows before Pitch steals them as part of his heinous scheme. With the helping hand of master cinematographer Roger Deakins, the animation is richly detailed, vibrantly rendered and bursting with life. Debut director Peter Ramsey presents an animated fantasy world as gorgeously realised as I can recall.
But I dunno. There’s something mechanical about “Rise of the Guardians,” which lacks the kind of warmth and charm that DreamWorks Animation has boasted in recent years: it doesn’t have the high-octane exhilaration of the “Kung Fu Panda” films, nor the spell-binding enchantment of “How to Train your Dragon.” For the studio, this is an altogether middling effort, completely inoffensive but missing that all-important childlike sense of wonder. For kids, it might provide some light, if forgettable, popcorn-friendly entertainment. For parents, I’d advise getting the “Arthur Christmas” DVD instead.