by Mel Valentin
When word leaked that Zack Snyder, the director of three, hard-R-rated films ("Watchmen," "300," and the "Dawn of the Dead" remake), would next turn to the adaptation of a series of children’s books, incredulity, maybe even disbelief, seemed to be the most preponderant response from movie bloggers and critics. But a PG-rated, family-oriented film was exactly what Snyder, working with Animal Logic, the Australian animation company responsible for "Happy Feet," wanted to make for his fourth film. Now, almost two years later, "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole," based on Kathryn Lasky’s fantasy books for children, hits multiplexes. And like every other Snyder film, narrative weaknesses are counterbalanced by visual strengths, thanks primarily to Animal Logic’s Pixar-level contribution.In Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, the highest form of sentient life forms are talking owls and in keeping with Animal Logic’s involvement, they have Australian, New Zealand, and British accents (not a single North American among them, though). The storyline centers on Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess), a young Barn Owl, who, enraptured by his father Noctus’ (Hugo Weaving) stories about the heroic guardians of the title, dreams of journeying to find them and joining them as a warrior. Soren’s older, more pragmatic brother, Kludd (Ryan Kwanten), chafes at Noctus’ obvious preference for Soren.
"Pixar-level animation, but non-Pixar-level story equals..."
As owlets, Soren and Kludd can only drift and glide from branch to branch (called, naturally enough, “branching”). On an ill-advised, unauthorized attempt to fly on their own, Soren and Kludd are captured by fearsome owls from a neighboring owl kingdom. There, they encounter the so-called “Pure Ones,” fascistic warrior owls’ intent on imposing their regressive, reactionary views on the other owl kingdoms. Led by the helmet-covered Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton), one-part Darth Vader, one part Emperor, and his white-feathered mate, Nyra (Helen Mirren), the Pure Ones kidnap and train (actually brainwash) owlets into two castes: “pickers,” so called because they’re forced to pick through owl pellets for a mysterious rock with magnetic properties, or warriors in Metal Beak’s expanding army.
Soren and a young Elf Owl, Gylfie (Emily Barclay), manage to escape, but Kludd, convinced by Nyra’s flattery, refuses to join Soren and Gylfie on their quest (and it is a Hero’s Journey-type quest, courtesy, again, of Star Wars and Lucas’ acknowledged inspiration, Joseph Campbell and his non-fiction book, Hero with a Thousand Faces). Along the way to find the Guardians of Ga’Hoole, Soren befriends two other owls, Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia), a Great Grey Owl, and Digger (David Wenham), a Burrowing Owl. Soren’s nursemaid, Mrs. Plithiver (Miriam Margolyes), also joins him on the quest. Still borrowing heavily from the “mono-myth” outlined in Campbell’s book, a mentor, Ezylryb (Geoffrey Rush), a wizened, war-scarred Whiskered Screech Owl, makes an appearance.
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole has its share of narrative hiccups, mostly early on, thanks (or rather no thanks) to awkward, exposition-heavy scenes, often delivered in difficult-to-understand accents, overly familiar plot points (familiar to adults, if not young children), and, at times, an over-complicated storyline, the likely result of compressing three of Lasky’s novels, “The Capture,” “The Journey,” and “The Siege,” into a ninety-minute film (Lasky wrote a total of fifteen books). Whatever the reason, children under-10 will find major and minor plot points difficult to grasp and follow. Story-related stumbles, however, do little to diminish the visually impressive world Snyder and Animal Logic created for Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole.
Snyder and Animal Logic put the reported $150-million dollar budget to good, actually excellent, use. Backgrounds, textures, details are all exquisitely rendered. The owls, representing close to a dozen varieties, are animated in distinct shapes, sizes, and coloring. And that’s saying nothing about the photo-realistic feathers or, just as importantly, the extensive flying sequences, culminating in a ferocious battle (that might be too intense for small children). Water and fire effects are also animated at a Pixar-quality level, making Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole one of the most striking visually-oriented films, animated or otherwise, this year (or any other year).As for all-important themes, there’s the usual “believe in yourself,” “believe in your dreams,” lines at the textual level. Digging deeper, however, and the real theme emerges: "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole" is an anti-fascist, but pro-benevolent monarchy fable with the legendary guardians, self- and other-selected for their unique physical and mental abilities as the Jedi tasked with protecting the social order where owls live in relative peace while their benevolent king and queen pass and enforce just laws, a message that’ll resonate in constitutional monarchies like England or even Spain, but not in (presumably) representative democracies like the United States or Western Europe.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=19940&reviewer=402
originally posted: 09/24/10 16:55:19