Throw out any notions you had of Santa Claus having twinkly eyes and merry dimples. Apparently Clement Clarke Moore,¬†when he wrote his famous poem in 1822, decided to leave out the fact that Santa Claus is a massive, Slavic brick of a thing with tattooed arms (“Naughty” and “Nice”) and matching scimitars.

In Rise of the Guardians, we get this gruff but lovable Santa (called “North” here), along with surly Australian Easter Bunny, hummingbird-like Tooth Fairy, and a mute, pillowy Sandman. Together, they are the Guardians– keeping the kids of the world safe from fear and un-belief.

When the Boogeyman, aka Pitch Black (voiced by Jude Law), rises from his pit of despair to bring nightmares to children and to make them abandon their belief in our favorite holiday mascots, the Guardians must redouble their efforts, and for that, they need the help of Jack Frost (Chris Pine)… at least that’s what the Man in the Moon, aka Manny, leads them to believe.

Guardians is a wonderful treat for the holidays, which, now that I think about it, is relatively sparse in the Kid Movie department this year. This a sweeping (literally– the 3D really pays off here), fun (though occasionally very intense for little ‘uns), and magical film that will soon join the ranks of The Polar Express and The Muppet Christmas Carol as an annual tradition among the pre-tween set.

Santa (Alec Baldwin) is the de facto leader of the gang, but each of the other Guardians is a perfectly drawn companion. Bunny (Hugh Jackman) has a Down Under twang and a pair of boomerangs to help in the fight, and Tooth (Isla Fisher) is a turquoise-hued cutie that will keep the young girls in the audience giddy.

On the flip side, Pitch (Jude Law) is a dark, menacing figure backed up by a cavalry of black nightmare horses, which occasionally push the ‘scary’ envelope a little too far. Kids under age eight or so might leave with a few nightmares of their own.

First-time director Peter Ramsey, who’s worked as a storyboard artist on a couple dozen films, keeps the action flying fast and furious; there’s little time to breathe among all the swooping from rooftop to rooftop, and though occasionally the frenetic pace gets to be a little too much, it rarely feels gimmicky.

The screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire (Robots), based on the Guardians of Childhood series by William Joyce, expertly brings bevies of iconic childhood moments to life. It’s not as whimsical or pop culture-y as, say, the Shrek or Madagascar series, but there are more than a handful of laugh-out-loud moments, and kids (and their parents) will find plenty to enjoy.

If nothing else we finally learn why the Tooth Fairy keeps all those teeth she collects. Who knew?

Note: don’t leave when the credits start rolling. There’s a fun additional sequence about two minutes in.

4.5/5 stars