Rise of the Guardians (PG) ★★★★½

Review Date: December 4th, 2012

It's easy to be cynical about holiday movies or even the holidays themselves. Rise of the Guardians simply won't let you, though, even if you don't partake in Christmas or Easter. Without getting too highfalutin, the stars of Guardians have more in common with pagan myths than the craven cash-grabs we associate with Judeo-Christian holidays. What's more, North (aka Santa, voiced by Alec Baldwin) and Bunny (as in Easter, voiced by Hugh Jackman) are joined by more universal figures like Tooth (as in Fairy, voiced by Isla Fisher), the Sandman, Jack Frost (Chris Pine) and Pitch (aka the Boogeyman, voiced by Jude Law). Overseeing it all is the silent Man in the Moon, who gives the Guardians their directions.

Jack Frost wants to be believed in and seen by children as much as he wants to understand where he came from. When he's called to help the Guardians protect the world from Pitch, he's hesitant to join, but the possibility of being believed in and recovering his memories is too great to pass up. When Pitch succeeds in giving boys and girls bad dreams, they stop believing in the Guardians, which in turn threatens their existence. Nothing is worse than not being believed in. They also get some help from one open-minded little dude named Jamie (Dakota Goyo), who is a big believer in the unknown. (A little detour in the story with Jamie's little sister is freaking adorable.)

The characters are fabulous and no small part of what makes the movie work. Based on The Guardians of Childhood books by William Joyce and adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire (who wrote the excellent Rabbit Hole), Guardians stands out because the story isn't wedded to any one mythology. North is a big Russian with tattooed forearms, and his real helpers are yetis — yet another mythic creature. Bunny is more of a wild hare with an Aussie attitude, and his inner sanctum is lush and green, calling to mind the fertility rituals originally associated with spring. Tooth is a fantastic hummingbird woman who has an army of beautiful, tiny hummingbird ladies who travel around the world to collect lost teeth. The teeth contain memories, so they're treasured by Tooth and her Baby Teeth, as her helpers are called. Sandy is silent and communicates through symbols that appear over his head, formed from his own sand; he's funny but also laid-back, as you'd want the creature doling out dreams to be. Jack Frost is a mischievous, cute young guy with anime hair who loves snowball fights and snow days, and Pitch is a sour Brit who sends out awful but beautiful black stallions made of sparkly dust to put fear in the hearts of children.

It's a visually stunning experience, making full use of 3D; famous cinematographer Roger Deakins acted as a visual consultant, as he did on animated films like WALL*E, How to Train Your Dragon, and Rango. Alexandre Desplat's score is evocative without being overbearing or manipulative. The writing is funny without being too self-referential, and the only pop culture reference I caught was to Crocodile Dundee. Frankly, it's hard to find fault with Rise of the Guardians. Maybe they could have included Hanukkah Harry?

Hollywood.com rated this film 4 1/2 stars.