‘Rise of the Guardians’ rises above most family films | 3 stars

11/20/2012 2:08 PM

05/16/2014 8:20 PM

A super-powered team of misfits unites to defend Earth against a dark lord from another realm. Sound like the plot of “The Avengers”?

“Rise of the Guardians” pilfers the formula of 2012’s top hit and successfully converts it into a delightful, kid-friendly, holiday flick. Plus, the fertile animation is worth spending an extra couple bucks to watch in 3-D.

Here, the characters are even more familiar than Iron Man and the Hulk. The Guardians include Santa (voiced by Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and the mute Sandman.

“It is our job to watch over the children of the world,” Santa explains.

They’re a surprisingly eccentric bunch. Santa is a towering figure with tattoos of “naughty” on one arm and “nice” on the other. He talks and dresses like a Cossack, and he oversees a magical operation that veers considerably from the legend. (Who knew yetis actually make the toys, not elves?)

The 6-foot Easter Bunny wields a lethal boomerang and surly attitude. The Sandman is a plump, joyous fellow radiating gold sparkles, which he forms into thought bubbles as his means of communication. The enthusiastic Tooth Fairy looks like a hummingbird crossed with a peacock.

The movie begins with the free-spirited Jack Frost (Chris Pine) — imagine Peter Pan meets Aang from “Avatar: The Last Airbender” — being reluctantly recruited into their ranks. Unlike the other Guardians, nobody can see the wintry sprite because nobody actually believes in him.

But his powers come in handy when the Guardians confront Pitch (Jude Law), aka the Boogeyman. The twisted loner’s specialty is turning sparkly dreams into sooty nightmares, part of his fiendish plan to get rid of the team. As portrayed with good jeer by Law, the Boogeyman is a screen villain worthy of the best James Bond adversaries (but not too terrifying for the little ones).

This adaptation of William Joyce’s “The Guardians of Childhood” series separates itself from the throng of animated blockbusters with its exceptional imagery. Each eye-popping domain comes with its own revisionist flourish. For instance, the Australian-accented Bunny’s lair draws from Easter Island, tinted in egg-dye pastels.

At times, “Rise of the Guardians” is too cluttered, too hyperactive. It’s a film constantly on the move, with zooming and dipping shots like those YouTube videos of unwitting patrons on amusement park rides.

This could devolve into overkill if the story itself weren’t captivating. Rookie director Peter Ramsey and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (“Robots”) find the right balance between action and emotion, creepy and comforting. (Their minor misfires involve derivative minor characters — e.g. Santa’s elves are weak knockoffs of the minions from “Despicable Me.”)

The core of their story is really about faith. If no one believes in these heavyweights of folklore, they cease to exist. “Rise of the Guardians” is not the first holiday effort to explore this “Polar Express”-style concept, but it’s one of the most inventive.

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