By Anthony Breznican
March 29, 2012 at 02:49 PM EDT

Have you ever believed in something so strongly that you made it real?

William Joyce definitely has.

The artist and storyteller, who wrote the books Dinosaur Bob and George Shrinks and did character design for the movies Toy Story and Robots, wanted his daughter, Mary Katherine, and son, Jack, to have no shadow of doubt that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy were real. So he began planting evidence — like a bad cop, or maybe the world’s best dad.

Those efforts have led to a series of books and an upcoming 3-D film from DreamWorks Animation, Rise of the Guardians, in which tough-as-nails versions of childhood icons join forces to combat a Boogeyman named Pitch.

With a new trailer showing off the Nov. 21 movie, Joyce takes a deep dive with EW on the story behind his backstories.

The way Joyce explained it to his own kids, the more faith one has in the existence of what he dubbed The Guardians of Childhood, the more power these protectors have.

Unusual footprints appeared around the house on holidays, a trail of glitter might lead from a pillow to an open window, and in addition to physical evidence, Joyce began creating elaborate backstories for these characters. “Spider-Man had one, why not Santa?” he says.

It all began when his daughter was born nearly 20 years ago. “It was like, ‘Yay, I can tell my kids about these characters!'” Joyce says. “Then I realized: I don’t know much. The mythologies presented to me were very very vague. Some of them seemed to be fading away a bit, like the Sandman, whose story seemed to be missing. I thought, ‘This is bad.'”

The author and artist also had another notion: “I thought, ‘This is what I do!’ I’m going to get into this and roll up my sleeves and discover a mythology.” As he set about telling his children his own histories for the Man in the Moon, Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Sandman, his daughter helped bring it all together.

“It was a question from her early on: Do they know each other?” Joyce recalls. “And I thought, YEAH. They KNOW each other.”

It’s a happy memory for the artist, though his family later had more than their share of painful ones. Mary Katherine lost her life two years ago from a brain tumor, at age 18. Her name has adorned seemingly everything Joyce has created since, from his Guardians of Childhood books, to his recent Oscar-winning animated short, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, the first big project of his Shreveport-based Moonbot Studios.

Like any great muse, her influence transcends the hardships real life has to offer, and the stories she and her brother helped inspire are being shared with the rest of the world, with the books beginning publication last fall, and the movie hitting theaters next fall.

Our collective view of Santa Claus has been shaped by everything from Gene Autry’s recording of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to Clement Clarke Moore’s poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (later to be known as T’was the Night Before Christmas. Even Coca-Cola ads helped popularize the red suit and white trimming, though the company didn’t invent that look, as many think. (Hey, belief makes things true, right?)

“And with the Easter Bunny, if there is any mythology, it’s kind of conflated with Beatrix Potter or Peter Cottontail. It’s this foggy, hazy thing,” says Peter Ramsey, director of Rise of the Guardians. “I don’t know if anyone has done anything [definitive] on the Tooth Fairy besides The Rock being in a movie about her.”

In that regard, Ramsey knows this movie has a responsibility to the characters, since it could so easily shape the way kids view them. “When I first came on, I think right off the bat, my instinct — along with everyone else’s — was not to do this as any parody or spoof,” he said. “These are beings who are real to a majority of the audience, or were at one point or another. We thought, ‘Let’s take belief seriously.'”

If Rise of the Guardians adds anything to the existing mythology, Ramsey hopes it’s that Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy are not just generous gift-givers, but also strong, selfless, and — above all — brave.

“They don’t have a warlike side,” he says, though they’re certainly tougher than other images of the characters. “Their whole existence is based on the idea that a full, rich, loving, adventurous life for a kid is worth anything they would possibly have to sacrifice. That’s the idea of being a Guardian. It’s kind of analogous to being a good parent, really.”

Here’s a gallery of each of the main characters, along with details from Joyce and Ramsey about their bizarre and colorful histories.

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Alec Baldwin as Nicholas St. North

This version of Santa is a former Russian Cossack who is described by Joyce as “the bravest man in the world.”

Voiced by 30 Rock‘s Alec Baldwin, this Santa “was as wild as they come as a youth, and along the way his warrior heart was turned to good. He decided to put all that prowess and energy and courage into protecting the innocent.”

While Santa is the nominal leader of the Guardians (since he is the one who enjoys the most belief from around the world), the actual chief of the Guardians is The Man in the Moon — an ancient, benevolent being whose massive starship, which we see orbiting our planet, was disabled in orbit around the Earth when he was just a child.

Pitch, the villain of the series, crash-landed on Earth after attacking the Man in the Moon’s family and crew, destroying the ship’s ability to fly through the galaxy.

Stuck alone up there (aside from his many moonbots), The Man in the Moon keeps watch over our planet, and helps recruit and direct the Guardians.

“He’s a godfatherly guiding figure,” Joyce says. “I thought, ‘Who’s the oldest one?’ It would have to be The Man in the Moon since the moon’s been around forever. But he’s also distant, so he guides them from afar.”

He’s kind of like Bosley from Charlie’s Angels.

“It’s funny how that keeps coming up,” Joyce laughs. “People are saying he’s like Bosley, but that’s exactly the way I thought of him.”

Joyce’s take on Santa was influenced by Sean Connery — and the Scottish actor’s most famous character. “In my mind, he was always bigger than life, and had an element of James Bond to him,” Joyce says. “He can do amazing stuff, and he has all sorts of cool gadgets. There’s no way you can be Santa and not have extraordinary technology at your disposal.”

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Hugh Jackman as The Easter Bunny

“If Santa is a man of action, I knew the Easter Bunny needs to be somewhere between action and thought,” Joyce says. “He has a little more of a Spock thing going on. If Santa is Kirk, then Bunny is a little Spock. ‘Don’t just tear in there and start sword-fighting. Let’s think this through a little bit.'”

While Santa loves technology, Bunny is (naturally) more earthy. “He is a great warrior, but he’s a little aboriginal in a way.” He’s also irritated that Santa seems to get most of the attention from kids.

Like the other Guardians, Bunny has an insanely impressive backstory. As part of a race of super-rabbits known as Pookas, he literally helped save the world in its early days. “Earth was originally egg-shaped, but that was rotationally unstable, so we were heading toward the sun,” Joyce explains. “The planet was going to be cooked like a hard boiled egg, so against his aesthetic judgment, with his incredible digging ability, he rounded out the Earth into a rotationally more docile sphere. In doing so, he created a number of continents, among them his favorite, Australia. The joke is he’s from waaay down under.”

The Australian element wasn’t thrown in just for Jackman’s sake, though Joyce said it did make the actor more appealing for the role. “It became a sort of eureka moment. ‘But of course! He better want to do it…'”

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 Isla Fisher as The Tooth Fairy

Tooth is a half-human, half-hummingbird creature who collects children’s teeth because they contain important feelings and memories from early childhood that are returned to them by her at crucial moments in their adult lives.

“I spent about a year asking people is the Tooth Fairy a boy or a girl? It was surprisingly split almost 50/50, like tossing a coin,” Joyce says. “So I went ahead and tossed the coin myself and said, It’s a girl.”

Wedding Crasher’s Isla Fisher voices the character, who is notoriously flighty — and not just because of her wings. “There’s one Tooth Fairy, but she’s actually a million mini-versions of herself,” Joyce explains. “She would be somewhat scattered because of that.”

These smaller, hummingbird-sized offshoots enable her to accomplish her nightly duties, gathering the teeth of countless children around the world. (While Santa and the Easter Bunny are busy one day a year, she is occupied 365.)

“It’s a hard job. It’s like tucking in every kid, or a portion of the kids of Earth, every night,” Joyce says. “Every kid who has lost a tooth during that day, she has to be there. It’s like being a mom on a global level. It’s hard enough being a mom with three or four kids or even one. This is a huge task that leaves her a little bit rattled and distracted. It’s dealing with being a mom on a heroic scale.”

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The Sandman a.k.a. Sanderson ManSnoozy

Like The Man in the Moon, the Sandman is another celestial being who has crash-landed on Earth. Dazed, but perpetually cheerful, he supplies the children of our planet with good vibes, good dreams, and the tools they need to fuel their own imaginations.

“He is the caretaker of dreams. He wields the dreamsand that gives you good dreams every night, from his island of the sleepy sands, which was a shooting star long ago that he was piloting,” Joyce says.

He doesn’t speak, but communicates via a sort of thought bubble, with clouds of dreamsand forming images over his head. “He’s always in a sort of dream state,” Joyce says. “Though Sandman seems small and incapable, when push comes to shove he’s actually the most fierce of all because he has the greatest power.”

His dreamsand has the power to easily vanquish Pitch’s army of nightmares. “The sand he distributes elicits good dreams, and he can wield that like such a badass, like giant whips,” Joyce says, comparing it to a scene from Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.

“When Sandy gets into it, it’s like when Yoda started really going after Christopher Lee,” Joyce says. “It’s like, Holy moly, Yoda. Who knew you had the moves?”

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Jude Law as The Boogeyman

“This version of the Boogeyman is extrapolated from the classic guy who hides under your bed and is in the shadows,” says Rise of the Guardians director Peter Ramsey. “The whole idea with him is his weapon is fear. Fear makes him more powerful. It’s what he uses. It’s the way he operates”

Jude Law adds a slithery smoothness to the figure, who appears as wisps of black mist, flanked by an army of unending nightmares. After pursing The Man in the Moon’s family through the universe, and launching an attack that led both of their ships to be trapped in or around the Earth, he is forever trying to establish himself as some sort of omnipotent ruler.

“He crashed to Earth in his Nightmare Galleon, and has been trapped in the bowels of the inner Earth,” Joyce says. In his zeal to find out what happened to his old nemesis, The Man in the Moon accidentally awakens Pitch with one of his moonbeams, and must mobilize the Guardians to help stop the villain again.

What motivates the Boogeyman? “It’s resentment, sort of the classic Paradise Lost story,” Ramsey says. “‘I’m booted out of heaven, I’m not as powerful or as loved as the angels. I don’t deserve this fate. I should be just as big as them.’ He’s going to fight this war to be believed in by destroying belief in the Guardians.”

The Guardians protect imagination, hope, generosity, and courage — all things that make fear less prevalent. “Pitch wants more fear. He wants to weaken the things the Guardians bring,” Ramsey says.

The Guardians find themselves outmatched by him, and a new member of their team must be recruited, since The Man in the Moon believes he has a hidden power that will prove useful for defeating Pitch.

It’s a figure whose name is sort of known, though he isn’t as beloved as Santa, the Easter Bunny, or the others …

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Chris Pine as Jack Frost

Jack Frost is literally too cool for school. He doesn’t have a holiday, but kids love the unexpected vacations he supplies through snow days.

Chris Pine provides the voice of the character, a ghostly blue and white 14-year-old boy with no memory of his past apart from waking up one night floating in a frozen lake. He discovers he has the power to control wind and ice, and sets about using this strength mainly for the purposes of pranks.

He likes to annoy people, so blame him for your ice-encrusted windshield or burst water pipes in the winter.

When Joyce was pitching the idea of a Guardians movie, DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg suggested adding a character who is new to the team, someone to be the audience’s eyes and ears to this strange world.

“We talked a lot about The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai, which are about a bunch of guys who are already doing their thing, and one guy who’s new at it,” Joyce says. “Since Jack Frost was the least known, and he doesn’t have a holiday, it makes perfect sense that he’d be the outsider coming in.”

It also makes the story about someone who, though he’s physically stuck as a kid, can come to embody the bravery and selflessness the Guardians represent. “I love the Peter Pan story, and there’s something heartbreaking about being a kid forever. He’s stuck at 14 , which is not the best outcome,” Joyce says. “He has never belonged to anybody. That’s fun on a certain level, but he yearns for more.”

Also, he may not be the good guy everyone hopes. “He hasn’t really taken a side. And nobody really believes in him,” Joyce says. “But that’s something he longs for.”

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Read More:

‘Fantastic Flying Books’ storytellers on Cloud Nine with Oscar win

‘Rise of the Guardians’ reveals warrior versions of Santa Claus, Easter Bunny

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