Thoughts become things. That's the message of "Rise of the Guardians," a charming if slightly dark and cobwebbed animated feature about how believing in something makes it real, or real enough.
That theme is a bit of storytelling DNA that the movie — loosely based on William Joyce's book series "The Guardians of Childhood" — cribs from both "Peter Pan" and "The Velveteen Rabbit." It's hardly grand larceny. The idea's an old one, yet "Rise of the Guardians" takes it and makes it its own. It's a lovely and original tale.
The question of what's real or not revolves around a group of venerable protective spirits called the Guardians: Santa Claus, known as North (Alec Baldwin); the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman); the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher); and the Sandman, who never speaks. Collectively, they are what gets those of us of a certain age through the night.
The arrival of a young fifth spirit, Jack Frost (Chris Pine), sets the story in motion.
Or rather, the arrival of the bogeyman, known as Pitch Black (Jude Law), does. Pitch is the bringer of nightmares. His resurgence, after years of being held at bay by the Guardians, mobilizes the film's heroes, who must accept the help of the untested and somewhat irresponsible Jack, whose powers don't seem terribly useful in banishing evil. Jack, of course, can induce snow days with the wave of his wooden staff, whose touch covers the world with a cascading craquelure of ice.
In addition to the showdown between the Guardians and Pitch — who's startlingly scary, especially for younger children — there's another conflict. Few kids actually believe in Jack Frost, other than as a quaint metaphor for cold weather.
As Pitch becomes more powerful, more and more kids start believing in their nightmares, and fewer and fewer in the Guardians.
Except one little boy named Jamie (Dakota Goyo) refuses to give up his beliefs. Only Jamie can see Jack. It's this power of Jamie's belief that makes Jack, and the other Guardians, real again.
That's a sweet thought, and the story, by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire ("Rabbit Hole") spins it out with magic and dark delight. Like fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, parts of "Rise of the Guardians" cast strong shadows.
But there are laughs, too. Baldwin, who does a surprisingly credible Russian accent, makes an appealing if unusually unjolly Santa Claus, with Jackman's Aussie-accented, boomerang-wielding Easter Bunny providing much of the comic relief.
It may not have been on your Christmas list, but with its fresh take on the power of myths, "Rise of the Guardians" is one present you won't want to return.
Now playing in Cullman.
PG. Contains scary sequences and a frightening character. 97 minutes.