The idea is simple: The guardians of childhood, those legendary characters everyone hears about while going to sleep or getting admonished by a parent, must band together to fight off the common enemy of all children.
These “guardians” are Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, Sandman and the Tooth Fairy. The bad guy? Well, in truth he mostly gets dismissed as a mere figment of one’s imagination, the Bogeyman. Which makes him a very angry and insecure dude.
The kicker is that the guardians need yet another force, yet another character, but who would that be?
Enter Jack Frost.
Now that is a puzzle since Jack Frost seems like a weather condition with a first name. Yet author and illustrator William Joyce in his series of books, “Guardians of Childhood,” made Jack a central figure and he remains so in this animated feature.
The Big Four, as conceived by Joyce and his film adaptor, playwright and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire, are figures at odds with commonly held beliefs.
Nicholas St. North (voiced by Alec Baldwin) is a Cossack, a vigorous, muscular man with flowing white beard and many tattoos. He runs a busy enterprise at the Pole where giant Yetis — think of multiples of Chewbacca in “Star Wars” — make the toys while elves merely get in the way.
Meanwhile the Easter Bunny, or rather E. Aster Bunnymund (Hugh Jackman), is a cranky warrior rabbit from the Australian outback, large in size and adept in many fighting techniques.
Sandman or Sandy is a person of mystery. He says nothing although symbols appear above his head to hint at what he’s thinking. But he can spin gold strands in the air that put to slumber all who become so entangled.
The Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) is half hummingbird — think of Tinkerbell — with teal blue and green wings and large eyes. Her duties involving teeth require many helpers, fairies much tinier than herself.
The strength of all these characters lies in children’s belief in them. Should that falter, so would they.
Thus, the hero is summoned. Jack (Chris Pine) is a mischievous youth, happy only when cold weather sneaks in with its snowmen, snowball fights and toboggans.
He feels hugely under appreciated though as he is generally thought of as merely something that nips at your nose and not a real being. In fact, he’s invisible to everyone but the Fab Four.
The character introductions and their various worlds — North’s polar workshop, Bunnymund’s network of tunnels to deliver eggs and the Tooth Fairy’s bird palace — never lead to anything terribly exciting. Their various duels and showdowns in 3D with Pitch (excellent 3D by the way) are overly kinetic and vague at the same time.
What magic any of them possesses is never entirely clear so the duels seem almost arbitrary. Plus the film’s nominal hero, Jack, is overshadowed by his all-star pals.
This is especially true of Baldwin’s North. With his Russian accent and sweet mangling of English, his is a new take on old Santa that is quite refreshing. Imagine a Santa that’s a Zeus-like character rather than a chubby old fart.
Indeed he would be the leader of this band of merry legends except that everyone seems to take orders from the Man in the Moon, a curious addition to this team, remote yet omnipresent, that hints at a religious manifestation in what is otherwise a children’s fairy tale.
DreamWorks Animation has certainly created a magical looking fairyland, both in its supernatural realms and on earth where a few multiracial American children represent children everywhere.
Director Peter Ramsey, a storyboard artist in his feature debut after helming the telefilm “Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space,” makes fine use of his production designer Patrick Hanenberger and visual consultant, top DP Roger Deakins to produce one of the more vigorous holiday animated fables in a long while.
There is much to admire here but, alas, the story falls short close to the finish line.
Opens: November 21, 2012 (Paramount Pictures)
Production: DreamWorks Animation SKG
Voice cast: Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Jude Law, Isla Fisher, Hugh Jackman
Director: Peter Ramsey
Screenwriter: David Lindsay-Abaire
Based on the book series and a Reel FX short film by: William Joyce
Producers: Christina Steinberg, Nancy Bernstein
Executive producers: William Joyce, Guillermo del Toro, Michael Siegel
Production designer: Patrick Hanenberger
Visual consultant: Roger Deakins
Music by: Alexandre Desplat
Visual effects supervisor: David Prescott
Editor: Joyce Arrastia
PG rating, 97 minutes