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'Rise of the Guardians' is a charming holiday tale

REVIEW: Kids have complicated mental universes. Why can't all the dogs on the block be related, or each bathroom in the house be a different country? Grasp that, and it's easy to relate to the premise of the 3-D animated children's film "Rise of the Guardians," where Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman and the Tooth Fairy all join together in an Avengers-like group to fight evil.

These are not your father's fairy-tale or holiday characters. Santa Claus (voice of Alec Baldwin) is Russian, the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) is Australian, the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) resembles a flying mermaid and the Sandman can't talk. The odd man out is Jack Frost (Chris Pine), who can freeze things with a touch, but can't remember anything about the human life he had before he took on his wintry role.

Jack is called upon to help the group battle a dark and creepy bad-dream-giving Bogeyman called Pitch (spookily voiced by Jude Law), who, with his horrific black nightmare horses, is like something out of Harry Potter's closet of villains.

The group's dynamics are fun and original. Santa's the boss, spouting Russian composer names as swear words. (I'm rooting for "Rimsky-Korsakov!" and "Shoskakovich!" to catch on with grade-school potty mouths.)

His sergeant-at-arms is the not-so-cuddly Easter Bunny, who knows his way around a boomerang more than a basket, and is perhaps the most annoying of the bunch. 

But it's the silent Sandman who turns out to be the hidden star of the show, sweet and tough at the same time, even though he resembles a spun-sugar madeleine cookie.

There's a dark undercurrent running through the film. Jack Frost has a tragic backstory, and until he hooks up with Santa's crew, he's kind of a cold little loner, getting his icy thrills from instigating snowball fights and sledding excursions for which he always has to stay invisible.

He's a natural addition to the Guardians, yet it takes him a while to feel he fits in. Kids relate to that -- who hasn't watched a group of established pals from afar and felt the holes in your own life all the more achingly?

The plot gets a little scrambled, but imaginative kids will walk out of the film with a whole new set of mental imaginings. My preschooler and I found ourselves wondering who else the Guardians hang out with. (Yeti figure prominently, leprechauns are mentioned.) Will there be a sequel where Baby New Year and Father Time play roles?

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