Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny don't merely know one another. According to Rise of the Guardians, Mr. North Pole, Ms. Molar, and the Rabbit are in league with Sandman and relative newcomer Jack Frost to protect and serve the imaginations of children everywhere.

Which is a good thing. Because the sepulchral Bogeyman, called Pitch, is dispatching nightmares (literally, black horses) to disrupt the rugrats' sleep. The last line of defense is the cabal of jolly night visitors.

On paper, it sounds like the Most Calculated Holiday Movie Ever. In execution, the animated film inspired by William Joyce's "The Guardians of Childhood" storybooks is enchanting. The shaggy, whimsical characters have a primal familiarity, as though they were developed by a tag team of Maurice Sendak and Walt Disney.

Jack Frost (voice of Chris Pine), an adventurous youth with a SK8er Boi attitude and a shock of snowy hair, has been dispatched by the Man in the Moon to the North Pole. That's where North, a Russian-accented Santa voiced by Alec Baldwin, carves ice sculptures in the off-season. (His forearms are tattooed with "Naughty" on his left and "Nice" on his right.) North's retainers are Yeti who chatter a language known only to them.

Jack Frost is not his only visitor. There is the urbane, boomerang-toting Bunny (Hugh Jackman), who's concerned because the long shadow of Pitch (Jude Law) - rendered as storm clouds that rain iron filings - threatens to preempt Easter. There is the giggly, hummingbird-like Tooth (Isla Fisher), like Tinkerbell dressed in iridescent butterfly raiment. And there is Sandman, a sand sculpture.

He doesn't speak, but rather communicates through thought balloons.

Jack, new to these parts, doesn't quite know what he's doing among childhood's Fantastic Four. But when Pitch comes to make mischief, Jack's skill with his Excalibur-like staff neutralizes the gloomy disturber of sleep. What Jack does not initially realize, but the audience does, is that his arrival means that the Fantastic Four are about to become the Fantastic Five of childhood superheroes.

The film makes great use of 3-D to surround the audience with snow, and take them down the Easter Bunny's warren.

The joy of Peter Ramsey's clever and well-paced film is how it maintains its focus on the experience of childhood wonder rather than on holiday loot. Christmas gifts and candy and money for teeth are nonfactors here. Jack's first encounter with a human kid, Jamie, is to take him on a thrill ride through the snow on a sled. That feeling of exhilaration and fun stays with you throughout this perfectly scaled film destined to become a classic.EndText

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