Dir. Peter Ramsey
(2012, PG, 97 minutes)

Rise of the Guardians, which has been in production for years and is adapted from children’s books that go back even farther, seems now like it has been cleverly positioned as a kid brother of sorts to this summer’s The Avengers, assembling Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and Mr. Sandman against an otherworldly foe bent on world domination. But it’s perhaps surprising that this is the stronger film overall, and specifically a stronger action film.

I’ve noticed more and more over the years that advances in computer animation have made the medium uniquely well suited to action spectacle: there’s complete freedom of movement, no limits of scale, no visual disconnect between live actors and digital elements, and no pesky flesh-and-blood performers with breakable bones. Guardians takes advantage of those factors by staging scenes full of fluid movement and deep visual detail. I saw it in 3D, and it’s only the second film I can unequivocally say is enhanced by it; the first was How to Train Your Dragon, for the same reasons.

Chris Pine voices Jack Frost, who has lived hundreds of years unsure of his purpose. When the Voldemort-like Boogeyman (Jude Law) strikes, Jack is recruited by Santa and company to become a Guardian, whose purpose is to protect children’s innocence.

The character design is imaginative. Jack has a slender frame that matches his lithe movements. Santa (Alec Baldwin) is still jolly, but reimagined as a brawny bruiser with a Russian accent; the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) is brightly colored and excitable, hovering with hummingbird wings; Easter Bunny is a six-foot Aussie with the voice of Hugh Jackman; and the mute Sandman looks like a brown-sugar marshmallow, cuddly but fierce, silent but deadly. Playing against the characters’ expected types is funny, and their unique abilities make this also like a superhero origin story; those are often tiresome, but when the heroes are Santa and the Easter Bunny, it feels fresher.

The characters are mostly unbound by the laws of gravity, and the 3D visuals sweep us through various landscapes with them. Each character inhabits his own unique, vividly designed world, with elaborate interiors and the requisite cuteness — Santa’s elves, Tooth Fairy’s tiny worker fairies. It’s that attention to detail that makes the film special. Many action films mostly blow things up. Guardians builds up a whole new world to inhabit.