William Joyce's illustrated books for children are marvels of wit and wonder, rendered in softly shaded colors with an art-deco flair. In books like A Day with Wilbur Robinson and Santa Calls, winsome dinosaurs wear miniature fezzes on their tiny heads; a roly-poly Santa, complete with monocle (the better to read the names of good little boys and girls), looks as if he's just stepped off a '30s Christmas card; and modes of transport include Buck Rogers-style spaceships and locomotives of the sort Superman could stop with his bare hands.
Rise of the Guardians is adapted from Joyce's book series The Guardians of Childhood. But the occasional Joycean touch aside, it bears so little resemblance to the look and feel of its source material that it ought to be considered an entirely different beast.
The story is convoluted and overly complicated: In the opening, we meet Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine), a skinny nonmortal with a shock of silvery Rod Stewart hair. Frost has been given a gift by the moon — he can create snow and ice crystals with a wave of his crooked staff — but he's been around for 300 years, and he still doesn't know who he is or where he came from.
Meanwhile, a Santa Claus type known as North (Alec Baldwin) — he's heavily tattooed and speaks with a thick Russian accent — discovers that the Bogeyman, aka Pitch (Jude Law), is alive and well and turning the dreams of children everywhere into nightmares, zapping any sense of wonder right out of the little tykes.
The crazed adventure that follows involves an Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) with an Australian accent, a fluttery tooth-fairy princess (Isla Fisher) in an iridescent Rockettes unitard, and a passel of little elf types in conical outfits, skittering here and there underfoot.
"Skittering" may be the operative word here: Rise of the Guardians, made by first-time director Peter Ramsey (who has been working for years as a storyboard artist), is too cluttered and manic to bring real pleasure. There's barely a moment when someone or something isn't flying through the sky, slipping on the ice or hippety-hopping down the bunny trail.
And with a few notable exceptions, the character design leaves much to be desired: Many of them look more like Robert Zemeckis-style concoctions, with semi-human eyes and waxy skin, rather than Joycean creations. That's a shame, because the picture does have its share of marvelous, semi-hallucinatory details, like an army of pastel-colored Easter eggs marching along bumptiously on slender little legs; they have no faces, so they look a little weird, but wonderfully so.
Guardians does feature one character who is pure Joyce: Sandman is a diminutive football-shaped fellow with a button nose and twinkling eyes. Not only is he made entirely of golden, glittery sand, but he flies around in a little Busby Berkeley-style airplane also made of sand; his charm quotient is off the charts. It's notable, though, that Sandman doesn't speak: He's an oasis of calm in an otherwise extremely busy movie. Rise of the Guardians, despite its good intentions, doesn't trust children to sit still for a minute. So much for preserving their sense of wonder.