A winter's tale: Peter Ramsey and William Joyce assemble childhood icons for 'Guardians' adventure

What do Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman and Jack Frost all have in common? After giving it a little thought, millions of us former children might take note that all five were larger-than-life figures who came to our houses while we were asleep and left us with something to wake up to—if only to let us know that they’d been there. And that they were real.

But to the creative minds behind DreamWorks Animation’s big-ticket holiday release, Rise of the Guardians (opening Nov. 21), this fab five isn’t just a motley bunch of benign nighttime visitors bearing gifts. They’re the Guardians of Childhood, united to battle mortal enemy Pitch, aka The Nightmare King—in other words, the Boogeyman—who threatens the innocence of children everywhere by stealing into their sleep and darkening their dreams. And when the Guardians take their stand against evil Pitch, they aren’t just guardians. They’re warriors. Superheroes even. Most of them can even fly—or at least leap tall buildings in a single bound

“These characters aren’t just fluffy little playthings,” says Guardians director Peter Ramsey. “They have a mission, and are willing to go to any lengths to protect kids and bring kids what they need to get along in life.”

These turbo-charged versions of childhood icons have been richly reimagined by executive producer William Joyce, the author, artist and Oscar-winning filmmaker who is currently about halfway through publishing a series of children’s books that unfold the elaborate backstories of Santa, et al. With a total of 13 books planned, that’s a lot of backstory. But Joyce says it all started with an idea given to him years ago—from his then-very young daughter Mary Katherine.

At the time, Mary Katherine was starting to lose her baby teeth, and Joyce was doing the usual parental sugar-coating by trotting out the story of the Tooth Fairy, who came in the night to take away the teeth under pillows and replace them with—money! Noting certain similarities to Santa’s nocturnal M.O., Mary Katherine asked, “Do they know each other?” At which point a light bulb flashed on and Joyce told his daughter, “Yeah. They do know each other.”

From there, it wasn’t such a big reach to weave the likes of the Easter Bunny and Sandman into this imaginary brother-and-sisterhood. But turning them into superheroes? All with elaborate origins? That’s almost as impressive as the fully formed new personae created by Joyce—and embellished by director Ramsey and the screenwriter, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole, Shrek the Musical).

Get ready to leave behind your cherished images of jolly old apple-cheeked elf Santa and Peter Cottontail-type Easter bunny. Prepare to behold, possibly for the very first time, what the heck the Tooth Fairy, Sandman and Jack Frost even look like. As Guardians, all are a little darker, edgier—and cooler—than most of us ever imagined.

Santa (voiced by a Russian-accented Alec Baldwin) is a boisterous, bossy bear of a man, a natural leader by sheer force. The Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) is a proud, prickly, short-fused Australian who wields a mean boomerang. The Sandman (no voice needed) is a silent, sleepy small person, who can muster surprising power over mind and matter. The Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) is hummingbird-like and ethereal and can subdivide into countless “selves,” all of whom are as sweet and kind as she is. Until you get them mad. And then there’s Jack Frost (Chris Pine), the teenage scamp who makes mischief with his power to insta-freeze anything, and who has no idea about the Luke Skywalker-type destiny that awaits him.

Call them the Justice League for kids. You’ll be far from the first to do so. “We hear that all the time,” laughs Ramsey, who says that they’re also fending off comparisons to last summer’s biggest blockbuster, The Avengers—which he also finds pretty funny.
“We’ve been working on this movie for three years,” says Ramsey. “But we still get so many people saying, ‘Did you get your idea from The Avengers? Is this based on The Avengers?’ It’s like, arrgh, beaten to the punch. But yeah, it is essentially the same idea. The ultimate super-team. But [our] guys were the first. And they have the added attraction of actually being real. So there.”

By “real,” Ramsey means that so many generations have started out in life truly believing in Santa and the rest. It’s that belief that Joyce, and now his film collaborators have tapped into—and what they believe the Guardians have over the superheroes of DC and Marvel.

“As a kid you never really believed in Superman or Spiderman,” says Joyce. “I mean, you knew they were fiction.” But Santa, the Easter Bunny and even Jack Frost, on the other hand, were something else again. They were entities that your elders told you about at a most impressionable age. They were folk-tale types of characters whose stories have been handed down through the centuries. “It doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” Joyce adds. “In a strange way they do. Culturally, we’ve made them up together, and they don’t go away.”

“They may be the first thing you ever believe in,” Ramsey observes. “I mean really believe in. You have an emotional relationship with the idea of these characters. I think it really goes deep in the psyche. People find themselves really moved by the movie, beyond what I ever expected.”

From where Joyce sits, the film adaptation of his labor of love couldn’t have turned out much better. And how often can an author say that? But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Although numerous studios and production companies showed interest in the project, all of them only wanted in on part of Joyce’s vision: a series of books, each about a different character, and then a movie that would bring the characters together, in an original, standalone story. Joyce always wanted the books to provide the detailed backstories, while the movie picked up where they left off. He didn’t want to just produce an adapted screenplay of one of his books. He didn’t want people going into the movie knowing what was going to happen—or to come out complaining about what had been left out from the book.

But everywhere Joyce went, people balked at the book angle. “Nobody wanted the whole package. It was like, ‘We make movies. We don’t want to be distracted by what you’re doing in these books. We don’t like not being in control of what you’re going to put into these books.’”

Finally DreamWorks came along, and bought into Joyce’s vision all the way. From the beginning, Joyce says, everyone involved agreed that this should be a different sort of DreamWorks animated film—that it should be a little more dramatic, a little more serious than the Shreks of the genre. Guardians needed to have more weight and gravity. The film, after all, is about child innocence and wonder, a state of grace that is inevitably lost. And in this millennium, as Joyce laments, “childhood belief in things fantastic is going away at an earlier and earlier age.”

Getting children (and their parents) to believe in Santa and the gang again—if only for a couple of hours—might be as close as a movie can get to truly recapturing the wonder. But that’s what the Guardians team was going for, from DreamWorks head Jeffrey Katzenberg and co-executive producer Guillermo del Toro (who, Ramsey says, proved yet another source of valuable creative input) on down through the entire cast and crew. The result is an animated spectacle that makes inspired, organic use of its obligatory 3D technology, while delivering images with all the depth and detail of an elegantly illustrated storybook. And why shouldn’t it? It had Joyce’s books as its model.

“We wanted the movie to feel kind of timeless,” says Ramsey. “We wanted to take belief in these characters pretty seriously. We wanted to present them in a way that honored the scope of the belief that you have in them as a kid. We wanted to definitely give it a touch of awe—even though we wanted to have fun with all of them.”

If by fun Ramsey means the scores of Santa’s workshop elves who bicker and pratfall and throw tiny tantrums, there’s plenty of that kind of stuff here. But a deeper kind of fun comes from the whimsical notions that the filmmakers sprinkle in like so much fairy dust—notions that, like the characters themselves, just don’t go away. This is whimsy that stays with you, like Jack Frost being the one we can thank for snow days. Or the Tooth Fairy collecting kids’ teeth to preserve their childhood memories.

Ramsey calls the Tooth Fairy’s mission “such a beautiful idea. I can easily see mothers telling their kids that from now on.” The idea that such elements of this movie could go on to embed themselves in the ever-evolving mythology of its characters is what Ramsey means when he talks about “timeless.”

The Guardians—both in book and movie form—represent a new pinnacle in the career of William Joyce, which already includes such peaks as the animation design he contributed to the Toy Story movies, the three Emmys he won for the TV series “Rolie Polie Olie,” and his Oscar-winning animated short The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, adapted from his own book.

But this is also a career high for first-time feature director Ramsey. From his beginnings as a learning-on-the-job storyboard artist, he has worked his way up from storyboard work on such films as Fight Club and Independence Day to animator on the likes of Shrek and Monsters vs. Aliens to director of the 2009 TV special Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins From Outer Space. Now, after eight years at DreamWorks, he has directed an A-List cast (which also includes Jude Law as the voice of Pitch) in what Katzenberg has called one of the most “creative and original” movies the studio has made. It marks the first time a major studio animated release has been helmed by an African-American director. Not bad for a guy whose first movie job was painting a mural on a studio set.

You get the sense that both Joyce and Ramsey would happily stay on board if DreamWorks decides to do a Guardians sequel or two. But nobody’s talking sequels just yet. That would be presumptuous. Nobody wants to go counting his Easter eggs before they hatch
Still, in this age of sequel overkill, it’s hard not to imagine more big-screen Guardians exploits in the future, especially given all the enthusiastic advance buzz this film is getting—including talk of Oscar nominations. Not to mention the two awards the film has already received before it has even been released: the Hollywood Animation Award from the Hollywood Film Festival and Film Awards, and the Vanity Fair International Award for Cinematic Excellence, bestowed by the Rome International Film Festival.

For now, the filmmakers are still basking in the afterglow of an enormously satisfying creative collaboration—and their obvious pride in the fruits of their efforts. “It’s been a very, very long journey,” says Joyce. “I’m just so happy that we’ve pulled into the port of my dreams.”