Rise Of The Guardians is a dream of a debut full of flair and wonder and quirky characters
This year we've already had four outstanding animated films — Brave, Frankenweenie, ParaNorman and Madagascar 3 — but Rise Of The Guardians is the best and most imaginative of them all.
This new animated extravaganza from DreamWorks is, in fact, the most accomplished since Pixar's The Incredibles in 2004: a family film full of wonder, originality and good-heartedness.
If you have small children, you may already have enjoyed William Joyce's book series The Guardians Of Childhood.
Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine) is a prankster sprite who has been leading a Peter Pannish existence for 300 years. He has icy superpowers but feels sadly under-appreciated by humans. They can't see him, and he can't really connect with them. He wonders why this is, and where he came from.
Jack's protracted adolescence is brought to an end when he is approached by the so-called guardians of childhood. These are a very grown-up Santa Claus figure called North (Alec Baldwin), not the cuddly Santa you meet in department stores but a huge Russian with 'naughty' and 'nice' tattooed on massive forearms.
There's also an iridescent humming bird creature called Tooth the tooth fairy (Isla Fisher), an exceptionally tall, aggressively Australian Easter bunny (Hugh Jackman, funny) and a mute-but-cute Sandman, who gives children dreams of wonderful shapes and sizes.
Like the superheroes in The Avengers Assemble, they're being threatened by an English-accented super-villain, called Pitch Black (voiced with suitably silky menace by Jude Law).
Santa's little helpers: The elves are North's loyal aides.
He's the bogeyman who gives children nightmares. His mission is to spread fear until 'there will be nothing but fear and darkness and me'.
The message is just as impeccable: a celebration of kindness to children, courage in the face of danger, and the importance of fun. Dickens and JM Barrie would have thoroughly approved.
Scrooges and child-hating pessimists may be less appreciative. The action sequences are so frenetic that they border on exhausting, but they undeniably have a 'wow' factor, and first-time director Peter Ramsey also finds time to give us images of lyricism and beauty. This is one of the few movies worth experiencing in 3D.
Easily detectable is the imaginative brilliance of executive producer Guillermo del Toro, who gave us Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth, and visual consultant Roger Deakins, one of the world's great cinematographers, who shot True Grit and Skyfall.
But the star of the show is Ramsey, for many years a respected storyboard artist on movies such as Men In Black, Minority Report and Fight Club. With this film, he moves immediately to the forefront of Afro-American film-makers. What a talent.