Author, artist, animator and all-around storytelling wizard, William Joyce remembers the very moment that his greatest inspiration struck. On an August day some 15 or so years ago, he was hanging out with his two children—daughter Mary Katherine and son Jackson—when Mary asked a fateful question. “Jack had just lost a tooth, so the Tooth Fairy was on their minds,” he recalls, “and she asked me if the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus knew each other. And I was like, ‘Ah! I’ll look into that.’ ”
So began a long creative odyssey that ultimately led to a new series of books, The Guardians of Childhood, and a brand-new animated film (the first, we suspect, of a trilogy) called The Rise of the Guardians, which opens the day before Thanksgiving. The title doesn’t begin to suggest the genius of its premise which, we admit, we wish we’d thought of. “Santa Claus, the Sandman, the Tooth Fairy, the Man on the Moon, Jack Frost, the Easter Bunny, Mother Goose—they all know each other, they hang out, they work together,” Joyce explains. “They have vast domains. They’re heroic figures because what they do is not quaint and cute, it’s global. They’re titans!” They join forces when necessary to fight against a threat—like the one posed by childhood’s ultimate villain: Pitch, the nightmare king (a.k.a. the Boogey Man).
It’s the most ambitious artistic undertaking for a Renaissance-man creator with an impressive résumé, which includes an Oscar, three Emmys and ten published New Yorker covers. Once the juices started flowing about this idea of a team of holiday-centric childhood deities, he knew he was really on to something.
“All these instincts kicked in,” the 54-year-old Louisiana native explains over drinks one recent night in Chicago. “Everything I’d ever loved—all the Kipling and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Sendak and Greek myths and everything—when I sat down to do this, they all just started twirling around in my head and vomiting out in this way that felt somehow right. Early on, when I would read the stuff to my wife or my agent or anybody, they would tell me, ‘I feel like I’m not hearing story; I feel like I’m hearing reported fact that I just didn’t know.’ And I was like, That’s it!”
Although most people will become familiar with Guardians from DreamWorks Animation’s CGI opus, the cinematic take was always meant to go hand-in-hand with the books Joyce is writing and drawing. Already released are the first three in a series of handsome hardcover novels aimed at middle-school readers (each featuring one Guardian: Nicholas St. North, a.k.a. Santa Claus; E. Aster Bunnymund, or the Easter Bunny; and Toothiana, queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies). In a savvy decision, there’s a sister series of picture books for younger kids.
“They all interconnect,” Joyce explains. “The picture books set up the simplified version of each one’s origin, and then the novels take a much more complex and interconnected look”—a clever strategy to reach multiple age ranges.
Still, his page-and-screen approach meant a long wait to see Guardians come to fruition. Multiple studio executives, although initially enthused by Joyce’s premise, nixed a deal when he explained his plan in detail.
“I held fast,” he tells us. “I turned down lots of money, ridiculous sums of money.” One famous animation studio was willing to let him write two books. “And I said no, it’s, like, 13 books!” But ultimately DreamWorks saw the wisdom of Joyce’s approach, and gave him a contract that allowed him to work on his novels while the studio developed the film.
[node:214301 noterms imagecache=field_image:timeout_245x152:image:0; cck=field_caption; cck=field_credits;]It’s not Joyce’s first foray into animation, not by a long shot. He worked with the Pixar crew during the studio’s early films, Toy Story and A Bug’s Life, and he’s done TV cartoons too. But his most famous creation (until now), “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,” gained greater attention in February when it beat Pixar to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, and Joyce, along with codirector Brandon Oldenburg gave a boisterous, joyful acceptance speech. The magical, heartfelt and dialogue-free film was the first effort from Moonbot Studios, which Joyce cofounded in 2009 in his hometown of Shreveport. (You can buy the 15-minute short from iTunes for just $2—and check out our Gift Guide’s “Bookworm” picks to read about Moonbot’s multimedia take on the story.)
Ask Joyce about his Oscar-night triumph and his face lights up. “I’ve never had more fun with my clothes on. That’s the only way to put it,” he says. “We were stoked! I’ve been practicing for winning an Oscar since I was eight. There’s not a lot of moments in life that are that clear, perfect and epic, and that was definitely one of them.”
The Guardians rise in cinemas everywhere November 21.