A badass Kris Kringle joins updated versions of the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Sandman, and more in an animated adventure from first-time director Peter Ramsey

By EW Staff
November 02, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

You better watch out, you better not cry. Santa Claus is coming to town…with twin swords that slice. That’s right, the gentle old toy bestower of legend has gotten a wintry warrior makeover for the animated epic Rise of the Guardians (rated PG). This time, the twinkle in his eye is as edgy as the tattoos that wrap around his brawny forearms — the word naughty on his right and nice on his left. ”He’s a wild man who thinks nothing is impossible,” says first-time director Peter Ramsey of Nicholas St. North, a.k.a. Santa, who wears the black fur Kubanka hat of the Cossacks and carries a pair of scimitars, reminders that in another lifetime he was Russia’s most feared swordsman.

The updated Santa (voiced by Alec Baldwin with a Russian bellow that’s Badenov to the bone) isn’t the only storybook icon who’s been given an attitude adjustment for DreamWorks Animation’s new adventure fantasy, based on a series of illustrated children’s books by William Joyce. The film also features the irascible Bunnymund (Hugh Jackman), a hard-boiled Easter bunny from Australia; the ever-dedicated Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), who’s half human, half hummingbird; the silent and surreal Sandman; a nightmare king called Pitch (Jude Law), driven by grudges and dark ambitions; and the aimless Jack Frost (Chris Pine). Young Jack appears on screen with a hoodie and zero memory of his past — he’s the chill snowboarder version of Jason Bourne or Wolverine.

Joyce came up with the idea for the story 14 years ago when his young daughter, Mary Katherine, asked if Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny knew each other. The Louisiana-based writer saw a chance to reconceive childhood mythological figures as an all-star team of action heroes, like the Super Friends if they gathered in the Hallmark Hall of Justice. Joyce, who earned an Oscar earlier this year for the animated short The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, quickly locked in a deal with DreamWorks Animation and began work on a bookshelf of tie-in novels that fill in the history of the characters. The first, Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King, arrived last year, and two more have followed.

Of course, bringing the story to the big screen proved anything but child’s play. ”We all put our shoulders into it,” says executive producer Guillermo del Toro of the five-year mission, giving full credit to Ramsey as the source of spark and steadiness: ”Peter is a very inspiring leader.” Ramsey, a 49-year-old native of L.A.’s Crenshaw neighborhood, arrived at DreamWorks Animation in 2004 as a storyboard artist and worked his way up on such films as 2009’s Monsters vs. Aliens. He’s the first African-American to direct a big-budget CG-animated film, a fact that didn’t mean much until he shared the news with his parents and saw their reaction. ”Tears,” he says. ”You can imagine.”

Watching the finished film a few weeks ago in New York City proved bittersweet for Joyce as well. In 2010 a brain tumor claimed the life of Mary Katherine, who was 18. But for Joyce, the audience’s joy at watching Santa and the Easter Bunny together at last was a gift to his daughter’s memory. ”It was like Christmas morning,” he says.

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