‘Rise of the Guardians’ Review: Magic, but You’d Better Believe in Santa Claus

Animated adventure creates a wondrous world of imaginary titans, then strands them in an all-too-earthbound story

There’s a really cool idea afoot in “Rise of the Guardians,” namely that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Sandman aren’t merely responsible for their little corner of children’s lives but are actually a super-team of “Avengers” proportions. Taking their cues from the unseen Man in the Moon, they protect children everywhere from evildoers.

There’s also a really tired concept dragging down the film, namely that new Guardians recruit Jack Frost isn’t sure that he wants to join up, and he doesn’t know who he really is — and he’s, basically, the umpteenth Joseph-Campbell-reluctant-hero who pops up in seemingly every kids’ movie and superhero epic. (Arguably, “Guardians” is both.)

And as much as I often found myself enchanted by this 3D animated film, based on the series of books by William Joyce, I couldn’t help noticing that this movie falls into a conundrum I like to call (with a tip of the hat to playwright Christopher Durang) “You didn’t clap loud enough — Tinkerbell’s dead.”

As an atheist (albeit one who loves Christmas movies), I get a little twitchy about films where children are made to feel guilty about not believing in things and people that don’t actually exist. So even though it’s nice to get a non-cynical story aimed at kids, in which open-heartedness and wonder are celebrated as virtues, this is another movie that paints itself into a theological corner by suggesting that those of us who question the existence of the Easter Bunny are at fault for all the world’s ills.

In this tale, the Guardians assemble for two reasons: to welcome Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine) into their ranks and to combat Pitch Black (Jude Law), a long-suppressed boogeyman who’s out to capture the Sandman (who never speaks, but is one of the movie’s funniest characters) and to replace his golden slumbers with hideous nightmares.

Santa (Alec Baldwin) — here made out to be the jolliest Russian stevedore on Earth — welcomes Jack to the fold and assures him that he can be a hero once he figures out what he’s made of. Less convinced is the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), who has ongoing resentment against Jack for all those times that wintry weather has disrupted egg hunts.

And there’s the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), who subcontracts most of her gig out to her army of pixies; one of the film’s interesting twists is to explain why children’s teeth are so valuable and what she does with them.

When the Guardians are zipping around the planet, invisibly enchanting children and ribbing each other, “Rise of the Guardians” has a real lift to it; first-time director Peter Ramsey knows how to pace the big set pieces, and he understands that anytime you can make characters fly around (or extreme-sled) in a 3D movie, audiences’ spirits will soar too.

All too often, however, the good stuff is interrupted by the extremely pat plot beats of Jack and his voyage of self-fulfillment, and those aren’t the only mistakes screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”) makes along the way. There’s a major plot development that takes place off-camera, which gives a large chunk of the movie a “Wait, what just happened?” confusion that’s too much of a distraction.

The young’uns at the screening I attended were entranced for much of “Rise of the Guardians” (terrible title!), so parents can rest assured that its target audience will leave satisfied. But the best family films truly appeal to the whole family, and adults may find themselves asking, and fending off, too many questions to take the plunge into this fantasy universe.