AFI Fest 2012 continued Sunday with the World Premiere of DreamWorks Animation’s holiday biggie and Oscar hopeful, Rise Of The Guardians, and if the buzz generated by this screening is any indication DWA should have a hit on both fronts. First and foremost Guardians,  is the perfect holiday family movie, but rather remarkably it appears the be the only holiday-themed family movie this season (it opens November 21), a sad state of affairs that had even DWA topper Jeffrey Katzenberg shaking his head in disbelief when I spoke to him. What the hell is happening here Hollywood?

Certainly being largely alone in the Christmas corridor’s family marketplace (the PG13 Hobbit not withstanding) won’t hurt the business prospects for the film, and a big box office smash will  lift its already bright prospects in what is turning out to be a fairly wide open race for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, especially with chief rival Disney’s attention divided between three films this year – Pixar’s Brave, Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie  and this weekend’s hit, Wreck-It Ralphwith the latter moving way up the charts thanks to a stronger-than-expected $50 million B.O. haul and some rave reviews that have placed it alongside Frankenweenie and ParaNorman as the best-reviewed toons at Rotten Tomatoes in 2012. The latter two could be hurt at Oscar time by being (unfairly?) lumped together with the hit Hotel Transylvania in the animated horror spoof sub-category. The delightfully clever and likeable video game-centric Ralph might eventually prove too hip based on past voting patterns  and the animation is more primitive than the stunning and sweeping visuals of Guardians and Pixar’s meticulously-designed Brave, something animators pay close attention to when voting.

Proud as he is of the success of their May release, Madagascar 3 (on its way to becoming DWA’s biggest moneymaker ever) Katzenberg and his team believe Guardians is their champion Oscar horse this year. Last year the company surprised most pundits and won nominations for both 2011 releases, Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss ‘N Boots and in their view split the votes letting Gore Verbinski’s much-acclaimed Rango step in and win the Oscar (all three were distributed by Paramount and Guardians is the last DWA film for Par before moving to Fox). That was likely to happen anyway but the company does not plan to muddy the campaign strategy this year. You can bet most of the  focus will be on Guardians which brings together legendary characters Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy, The Sandman and Jack Frost to fight off the evil boogie man, Pitch and save the world for those who “believe”.  It is ‘The Avengers’ of animated movies, an observation I pointed out to DWA’s Chief Creative Officer Bill Damaschke at the Hollywood Roosevelt post-party. “Yes, but we have been working on this film for six years, so I guess that is just an odd stroke of timing,”  he said about both films’ mash-ups of iconic characters coming together to fight evil.

The film is based on William Joyce’s The Guardians Of Childhood book series and is Executive Produced by Joyce (who won the animated short Oscar last year for The Fantastic Flying Books Of Mr. Morris Lessmore) and Guillermo Del Toro. First time feature director Peter Ramsey helmed it, Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire adapted the script and the all-star voice cast includes Chris Pine, Hugh Jackman, Isla Fisher, Jude Law and Alec Baldwin. Baldwin was the only one of those stars on hand at the AFI premiere where he told the crowd, “these (animated) films offer wonderful opportunities for actors and I love them because I don’t have to think about my hair”. Jackman’s tough-guy Australian Easter Bunny is also a real scene-stealer.

Though the tone of the film is sometime dark, much like classic old Disney films like Sleeping Beauty  and Snow White, the kids in the audience seemed to eat it up. Producer Christina Steinberg likened the scary antics of Pitch (Law) to their version of the Wicked Witch Of The West and Del Toro, who knows his way around this kind of material, told them they would know if it ever got “too dark”. Co-producer Nancy Bernstein said she kept her five year old on her lap through the whole premiere and they were fine with it all. Ramsey skillfully works in those menacing visuals with a lot of heart and humor.

A particularly poignant touch is the film’s dedication to Joyce’s daughter Mary Katherine Joyce who succumbed to a brain tumor at age 18 during the film’s production period. She was the one who initially sparked the idea for her father’s books when she innocently asked if he thought Santa Claus had ever met the Easter Bunny. Joyce was actually initially co-directing with Ramsey but left that position when his daughter got ill and stayed on as Executive Producer. The filmmakers decided to add a new song, Still Dream as something fitting for that dedication. The music came out of one of the film’s composer Alexandre Desplat’s main themes and scripter Lindsay-Abaire added the lyrics to the beautiful song sung over the end credits by Opera legend Renee Fleming. Both the song and Desplat’s sweeping orchestral score would seem ripe for Oscar nominations and DWA would be wise to campaign both.

DreamWorks Animation won the first Animated Feature Oscar for Shrek in 2001 and then in 2005 for Aardman’s Wallace  & Gromit In The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit but Disney/Pixar has largely dominated the winners circle since then.  “It’s our turn again,” says Katzenberg who is getting his own Oscar statuette at the December 1st Governors Awards as the winner of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Time will tell if he’s right.