"Rise of the Guardians" is a big-budget animated holiday movie with an improbable cast of characters: Jack Frost, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, a tattooed Russian Santa Claus, an uncuddly Easter Bunny and a heretofore unlikely film director.
Peter Ramsey is the first African American director of a major animated film.
"Directing, it just wasn't something in my mind that, 'Hey, this is something you can do,' " he said recently.
The DreamWorks Studios film, released just before Thanksgiving, has a hefty price tag of nearly $150 million because of the technology used in the animation. It's showing on more than 3,000 screens in 3-D and standard format.
Based on a series of children's books by William Joyce, the film is about the perseverance of childhood icons. It depicts how the Guardians, led by rebel Jack Frost, join forces to rally children's belief in them. The 3-D effect in snow, flying birds, moving ice and a revved up Santa's sleigh, with wings, gives the film added wonder.
"It puts you in the movie just a little bit more," said Ramsey, 49.
The movie is not yet on its way to blockbuster status, though it has rallied since its opening at fourth place after Thanksgiving weekend. It ranked second last weekend, according to the website Box Office Mojo, and has pulled in nearly $62 million domestically and $91 million overseas.
"It's come out in a crowded field," said Ramsey. "The word of mouth has been spectacular. It's more a question of working its way up."
Which is also the story of Ramsey. Born and raised in the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles, a mostly black area of the city, Ramsey started out as someone who liked to draw and thought he'd have a career in comic books. But after, as he puts it, "stumbling" into storyboarding live-action movies laying out scene sequences on large boards and gaining film-production experience, he was ready for bigger things. Like animation, his first love.
"I didn't have any formal education," said Ramsey, who spent two years at UCLA before dropping out. However, he said, "I'd drawn all my life."
With his even manner and artistic skill, he rose in Hollywood. DreamWorks hired him in the mid-1990s and he began his climb, which included key roles in the "Shrek" franchise, until he was asked to anchor "Guardians." It became a three-year project.
"Like building a battleship," Ramsey said.
African American directors have overseen major non-black audience-oriented live-action movies. F. Gary Gray directed "The Italian Job" with Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron; Carl Franklin directed "One True Thing" with William Hurt, Meryl Streep and Renée Zellweger; and Albert and Allen Hughes directed "From Hell" with Johnny Depp.
Ramsey is aware of his status among young African Americans, and he takes time to speak at schools and events.
Ramsey put his own mark on the movie's characters. It was his idea to draw big tattoos on the arms of Santa, known as North and voiced by Alec Baldwin. One arm says "naughty," the other says "nice."
The real significance of the movie, said Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African American studies at Duke University, is that no one can tell it has an African American director.
"You have a black director of a film that is not marketed as a black film," said Neal. "He represents this kind of coming of age of the black nerd."