If we want to slap a handy tag on Hollywood’s popcorn output for 2012, “Year of the Crossover” might be it. We’ve had flagship superhero characters join forces in “The Avengers,” video game mainstays collide in “Wreck-It Ralph,” a classic-monster mash in “Hotel Transylvania.” And to close things out — what else? — a 3-D animated dream-teaming of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and a few lesser icons of kiddie wonderment in “Rise of the Guardians.”
Happily, there’s no cynicism to the “Guardians” concept, no prevailing creative attitude of “Hey, how about a holiday franchise we can tap year round?” Children’s lit author and illustrator William Joyce (“Rolie Polie Olie”) credits the idea for the source books to his late daughter, and her youthful curiosity about whether the Tooth Fairy and Santa knew each other. (Awfully similar M.O.s, after all.) And the movie doesn’t just coast on familiar Christmas and Easter lore, but instead puts Jack Frost at the center of its adventure. The character might generally register as just something to fill out the “25 Days of Christmas” lineup on ABC Family, but the movie works hard to make him, you know, DreamWorks-legit. (They might also have worked on a title that seems like it’s bound to have brand-recognition issues with 2010’s owl-themed “Legend of the Guardians,” but we quibble.)
We meet hoodie-sporting Jack (Chris Pine) straight off, in visually showy scenes that establish his gifts for artfully frosting window panes and flying around laying down fierce sled trails. But he’s also established as a sad figure with no memory of his past, and no understanding of why other kids can’t see him.
Jack’s mischievous, melancholy wanderings are intercut with dire happenings up at the North Pole. Cossack-accented Santa, a.k.a. North (Alec Baldwin, broad as can be), learns that Pitch (Jude Law, playing bogeyman) is making a power play for control of children’s dreams. Time to gather their legendary protectors, the Guardians. There’s buff-and-tough Bunny (Hugh Jackman, mining his Aussie accent as a setup for kangaroo jokes); hummingbird-like Tooth (Isla Fisher); and the pint-size Sandman, a silent character whose power to dispatch morphing tendrils of golden stardust is a standout, genuinely magical effect. Jack is the rookie, the one they’ll all learn about even as he learns about himself.
The movie’s bid for distinctiveness works in lots of little ways: the Tooth Fairy’s expanded mythology, a running joke about yetis doing all the work for those dunderheaded elves, the “Naughty” and “Nice” tats on North’s burly forearms. In a way, though, the various narrative curlicues come at the expense of more aggressively pushing the big gimmick. “This is the best part!” Jack is told as he’s initially inducted into the group — but isn’t that obvious? Maybe not, given the story’s occasional soft-sell tendencies.
Still, this does seem to leave room for bigger, bolder, more momentous adventures down the line (as the coda — and Joyce’s growing book line — apparently promise). Just a little something for the kids to put on their Christmas lists for holidays to come.