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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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Sandman, Bunny, North, Tooth and Jack Frost are the heroes of "Rise of the Guardians," in theaters now.
Sandman, Bunny, North, Tooth and Jack Frost are the heroes of "Rise of the Guardians," in theaters now.

"Rise of the Guardians" continues the string of solid kid flicks

It's been a great year for kids movies. From "Brave" and "Wreck-It Ralph" to the more tween-geared "ParaNorman" and "Frankenweenie," Hollywood's been pulling out all the stops catering to the kiddos.

This week adds "Rise of the Guardians" to that list – a whimsical fantasy about children's most famous fabled icons and their secret allegiance to protect the collective innocence of childhood.

These aren't just your average fairytale characters, however. This squadron of imaginary elite includes North, a bad-ass tatted-up Santa Claus voiced by Alec Baldwin; Bunny, a boomerang-wielding, 6-foot-tall Easter Bunny voiced by Hugh Jackman; Tooth, a chipper rendition of the Tooth Fairy, voiced by Isla Fisher, who commands an army of hummingbird-like tooth collectors; and the silent-but-deadly Sandman (Because why would someone whose job is putting people to sleep want anything to do with the ruckus that is talking? Really now...)

And at the heart of the story is Jack Frost, voiced by Chris Pine. Jack's a solitary player, a bit of a rogue, and, unlike his illustrious counterparts, he's invisible. Believing is seeing in their universe, and since people write Jack Frost off as a force of nature or a mere turn of a phrase, his interactions with them go uncredited. He finds entertainment in playing silently with kids on snow days and mucking things up for Bunny by frosting the occasional Easter egg hunt, but for the most part, he's alone – without a past and without real purpose.

As it turns out, that's exactly the same problem plaguing the nefarious Pitch Black (voiced by Jude Law). Fear incarnate, Pitch is fed up with being explained away as a simple shadow seen out of the corner of people's eyes and has resurfaced to inflict a new Dark Age on the world's children. The Guardians assemble and recruit Jack, who joins their ranks after discovering that helping them just might help him uncover the truth about his forgotten past.

"Guardians" exhibits the all-star cast, polished animation and well-honed screenplay that have become de rigeur for successful films of its ilk these days. Its story is inspired by a book (you can't throw a snowball without hitting one of those lately), but it's a cleverly crafted one nonetheless.

For all of the fantasy-laden elements in play, the film's storyline is handled with an abundance of sensibility. Jack's narrative bookends the film, and his character arc carries the audience through the action. He's flawed and conflicted, giving them someone to root for, yet at the same time quick-witted and fearless enough to hold his ground as leading man in this semi-ensemble piece.

From larger plot points like Pitch's threat (and eventual downfall) to little details (the fact that North's hapless, "minion"-like elves do nothing but dink around while his far more capable band of yetis runs the show behind the scenes makes for particularly cute comic relief), "Guardians" presents itself so well it borders on – dare I say it – plausibility. It's fun and engaging without pandering to kids or stringing adults along, and its narrative is satisfyingly complex, but simple enough to follow easily.

Who knows? Maybe we should all keep a sharper eye out for Jack and company this winter.

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