In DreamWorks' new animation adventure "Rise of the Guardians," Santa has tats, he goes by the name North and he sounds like Alec Baldwin. Jack Frost is a renegade kid, a snowboarding/ice skating ace brought to life by Chris Pine, who brings all of his "Star Trek" swagger. The movie's total nightmare of a boogeyman is Pitch, who lurks around in the dark and drips with sinister sarcasm courtesy of Jude Law. It's as if hip-hop has come to Candyland, bringing an urban edginess to the traditional storybook rap. But that's only the tip of the 3-D iceberg.
Since childhood innocence, and belief in all things Hallmark is at risk, the film keeps piling on. Bunny is a fist-full-of-dyed-eggs Easter-wood type with Hugh Jackman doing the tough talking. Tooth is a sexy sweetie thanks to Isla Fisher. But her fairy force doesn't stop at doling out quarters, they also save the "teeth," which seems to make them candidates for a guest turn on "Dexter." If you're not careful, edgy can send things right over the cliff.
There is more than the usual darkness in children's author William Joyce's original imagining of the Guardians as a collective of protectors handpicked by the Man in the Moon (Joyce serves as "Guardians" executive producer along with Guillermo del Toro). The film's new chapter, shaped by playwright and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire with storyboard artist Peter Ramsey making his directing debut, unfolds about 300 years into their alliance. North, Bunny, Tooth and Sandy (the silent and often snoozing Sand Man) are tight. Jack remains a disaffected teen who doesn't understand how he even made Moon's list — his special talents involve turning water into ice faster than a Sub-Zero.
PHOTOS: 'Rise of the Guardians'
But foreboding forces are gathering because kids are far too happy for party-pooping Pitch's taste. He concocts a plan to wipe out any good vibrations and amasses an army made from the stuff of very bad dreams. For reasons known only to the Man in the Moon, the Guardians must enlist Jack in this fight and Frost has no intention of making it easy. There's some back and forth, including a pitch by Pitch that Jack cross over to the dark side. But this is a fairy tale so you know how that ends. As good as Law is as Pitch in stirring up trouble — and he is very good at being bad — the real surprise is Pine. He might have a face and a physique tailor-made for real-life action-hero gigs, but he's definitely got a voice for animation. If Frost had been frozen, Pitch would not have been the only problem.
Making the threat global opens the way for the animators to spice things up with forays into distant lands — a great chase scene across the rooftops of Shanghai is the best. But for the most part, the filmmakers keep things grounded; much of the war rages around two kids who live in a small New England town. Jamie (Dakota Goyo) is the boy who won't stop believing. His little sister, Sophie (Georgie Grieve), adds charm and comic relief by stumbling into the portal that links the real world to the Guardians'. Not surprisingly, she's content to run amok while the Guardians struggle to keep up with her — apparently their superpowers are no match for a toddler.
There are some pretty scary bits for the munchkin crowd. The fire-breathing horses that Pitch unleashes might be too frightening for some tykes, but it's the dungeons, even without the dragons, that are the most unsettling. The mood swings wildly between the emotional ups and downs of childhood — including what Jack remembers of his — and full-on "Terminator"-style fighting. The two don't always sit well together.
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The CG animation is painterly and might have been too perfect for the tone if the filmmakers hadn't mussed it up with some street grit and in-your-face attitude thanks primarily to Baldwin and Jackman. When Pitch goes about conjuring up evil — one touch and unicorns go up in black smoke — the animation is crazily good. The action scenes with Jack shredding snowdrifts, or riding a blizzard's gale-force winds like waves, are totally chill too.
But North's workshop is a manic mess of elves and toys and mayhem. He really needs to get his act together and not rely on a sasquatch (big, hairy, origins unknown) to manage things. Tooth's many minions are on the Type-A side, like hummingbirds on steroids with all their flitting here and there. Some of the scenes are minimal in detail, others are jam-packed and can make for visual overload. There is a lot to savor in "Rise of the Guardians," but sometimes too much of a good thing can be exhausting.
'Rise of the Guardians'
MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements and some mildly scary action
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: In general release
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