Rise of the Guardians isn't the best kids' movie of the year. It might or might not be in the top five. But it's a really neat, uplifting film that actually radiates sincerity about its messages of imagination and heroism. And that sincerity counts for a lot: Your kids will probably grow up to be slightly nicer people if they watch this film.
Given that you have a long holiday weekend ahead, this is an excellent option for getting your kids out of the house, and maybe even transporting them to a realm of wonder, and all that jazz.
Rise of the Guardians is based on a children's book by William Joyce — and somewhat unusually, Joyce was heavily involved in making this film, working on the screenplay and stuff. The result really does have the feeling of a decent children's book rather than another CG-animated joyride, partly thanks to an animation style that often looks a bit more painterly — even if it still had people like Alec Baldwin and Hugh Jackman doing the voices in the campiest style they can muster.
The hook of Rise of the Guardians is pretty ingenious, too — basically, the main mythological figures of the American childhood are joined into a kind of Justice League. There's North, aka Santa Claus (who's inexplicably Russian and a tough guy, with Baldwin supplying the Boris Badenov accent). And then there are similarly renamed versions of the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, and the Easter Bunny (who's Australian, with Jackman doing his actual accent.)
At the start of the film, two things happen — Jack Frost (Chris Pine) is chosen as a new member of the Guardians super-team by the Moon (who's basically the team's secret boss, or maybe their version of Oracle.) And Pitch, aka the Boogeyman (Jude Law) returns to try and take over the world with nightmares and terror. As the team struggles to pull together to fight this ultimate threat, it's up to Jack Frost to make the difference — but is he really a protector of kids, or is he just a young punk who likes to make things frosty? (No spoilers here, but you can probably guess.)
So basically these are superheroes whose powers all involve making children happy, with presents or Easter eggs or nice dreams. And they get their powers, in turn, from children believing in them, Tinkerbell-style. Part of what's refreshing about Rise of the Guardians is the way it mashes up "believe in Santa Claus" tropes with superhero tropes in a fairly self-conscious way. The story of Jack Frost is basically you're standard hero's journey thing, except that he's having to learn to be a hero by delighting children.
Oh, and Santa Claus has an army of elves, who are mostly useless, but he also has some handy yeti, who do all the actual work. And his mentorship to Jack Frost, illustrating the layers of his personality with a series of Russian nesting dolls, provides for a few pretty zany, fairly adorable moments.
The whole thing is pretty irrepressibly sweet, and there is a pretty strong sense of menace when Pitch starts winning some major victories against the Guardians, making children miserable and terrified. There's some cute comedy in the film, but the actors and film-makers wisely avoid making fun of their own premise — the threat of children being taken over by fear and harrowed by the Boogeyman is actually a serious one, that requires extreme valor. The question of whether the Easter Bunny will succeed in hiding eggs for an Easter Egg Hunt (this film takes place at Easter, even though it's being released in November for the pre-Christmas season) is a matter of extreme urgency.
And also crucially, this film manages to include some children as major characters, and they're pretty engaging and not at all grating. And there's a bit of a clever spin on the film's main idea: Santa Claus and the others have dedicated their lives to making children happy, but they haven't actually spent any time talking to children or learning about children in centuries. And in many ways, it's this aloof style of protectorship that has created the opening for the Boogeyman — and it's the most important thing that Jack Frost has to teach the other Guardians about, even as he learns about heroism from them.
By the end, when things escalate to a big bang-up action sequence, you'll probably be way more invested in the fate of the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy than you ever thought you would. There's just enough of the classic superhero team-up story to keep adults happy here, but it's also a great primer in nobility and the importance of protecting joy and imagination that is mercifully free of winks or subversion. Your kids will probably get something pretty worthwhile out of Rise of the Guardians — and you might, too.