Movie Review: 'Legend of the Guardians': '300' with Feathers

You’ve probably heard about the Uncanny Valley: not a geographical location, but the precipitous drop in peoples’ comfort level when they come across something that’s almost human… but not quite (like the replicants in Zemeckis’ mocap movies). Well, in Zack Snyder’s Legend of the Guardians you’ve got owls – dozens and hundreds of owls who look almost like real life owls… but not quite. It’s that quest for the absolutely perfect replication of wind rippling the tiniest hairs in their feathers or the way light glints and reflects off their wide eyes: Guardians achieves it – at the expense of the audience they’ve just tossed into the Valley.

Legend of the Guardians. (C) 2010 GOG PRODUCTIONS PTY LTD. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture.

I didn’t think the “Uncanny Valley” effect applied to animals, but man, these owls are freaky!

You’ve probably heard about the Uncanny Valley: not a geographical location, but the precipitous drop in peoples’ comfort level when they come across something that’s almost human… but not quite (like the replicants in Zemeckis’ mocap movies). Well, in Zack Snyder’s Legend of the Guardians you’ve got owls – dozens and hundreds of owls who look almost like real life owls… but not quite. It’s that quest for the absolutely perfect replication of wind rippling the tiniest hairs in their feathers or the way light glints and reflects off their wide eyes: Guardians achieves it – at the expense of the audience they’ve just tossed into the Valley.

CGI for the most part has wised up and conventional animation has always known this: stylize reality, tell an arresting story with sympathetic characters and your audience will happily accept anything – talking animals, talking cars, talking toys. But Guardians’ owls, they look like real owls, with real feathers and everything, but they’re capable of incongruous facial expressions… and they talk. They talk in solemn, ominous tones (provided by folks like Helen Mirren, Geoffrey Rush and Hugo Weaving) via emotive mouths built into their faces, behind beaks that thankfully have not turned flexible themselves.

Not only do they talk, they wear elaborate battle armor (including helmets that look like they were borrowed from Magneto) and nasty metal talons on their feet they somehow fashioned using their feet. I’ve never heard of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole (isn’t that what Goofy hollers after being slingshot into the air – “ga-hoo-oo-leee!”?) books the film is based on, but evidently they revolve around a Lord of the Rings/Harry Potter/Golden Compass/Chronicles of Narnia-style battle of Good Versus Evil. (Brit books all, which I guess explains all the Brit accents.)

The Good owls are the legendary Guardians and their Evil counterparts the owlet-snatching Pure Ones. Caught in the middle is the requisite callow youth, name of Soren (as in soarin’?)  thrust into a life-or-death struggle of cosmic proportions involving electrically charged metal ‘flecks’ the Pure Ones have been assembling into the ultimate avian weapon.

There’s a lot going on here, a lot of it reminiscent of other films: an older owl giving Soren flying lessons (Archimedes and Wart in The Sword in the Stone) and later advising him, in an echo-y voiceover not to “trust The Force” but rather, “listen to your gizzard;” a seer animal – a spiny echidna walking with a… something-festooned staff like that monkey guy in The Lion King; craggy, mountain-tall islands rising out of ominous seas (How to Train Your Dragon)… and then there’s the Great Tree the Guardians have made their home (you can figure that one out on your own). There’s also a crowd of imprisoned owlets clamoring to go home that reminded me of the donkeyfied boys in Pinocchio who could still talk, but that’s probably just me.

In a film that’s otherwise backed by a dramatic orchestral score, an upbeat pop song (“To the Sky”) heard halfway through sticks out like a sore feather. It’s performed by a young pop singer who’s been going under the incredibly synchronistic name “Owl City” for years – what are the odds?

Spartan warriors, dystopic superheroes… and now, avian armies; Zach likes his combat up close, personal and filled with sudden tight shots and bursts of slo-mo: Legend of the Guardians is 300 with feathers (and in 3D, plenty of those feathers are right in your face.) Interesting thought: while 300 is highly stylized, a graphic novel brought to life, in Guardians Snyder reached for that holy grail of CGI, ‘photorealism’ – and for better or worse, achieved it.

Prediction: quite a few folks will see Guardians for the short subject that accompanies it: Fur of Flying, an amazingly kinetic CGI/3D Road Runner cartoon. To paraphrase Snyder’s hoped-for reaction from Alan Moore to his Watchmen adaptation, they didn’t f*** it up at all: the ‘super-genius’ coyote and his would-be prey work perfectly in CGI. While Chuck Jones could only employ lateral camera moves, Fur of Flying’s camera soars though three-dimensional space, keeping up with Wile E. and the Road Runner via an impressively dynamic travelling camera. (If the either of the pair is in motion, chances are the camera is too.).

In the cartoon the hapless coyote narrowly avoids his karmic punishment for almost its entire running time – until the very end when it’s administered to him all at once in a massive dose of 3D overkill. The angular cragginess of Jones’ imaginary southwestern desert translates nicely into 3D, and most importantly they’ve rendered Wile E. with just the right degree of furriness – not overly detailed (like the owls in a certain movie it accompanies) but with a plush toy texture providing him with a tangible physicality appropriate to the cartoon.

And talk about visual echoes from other films in Legends: at one point Wile E (flying along in his Acme helmet-copter) pursues the Road Runner through an increasingly narrow crevice that slows him down enough for the bird to escape – the same method Soren and a pal use to evade pursuers in their movie. Maybe the Guardians should think about recruiting the Road Runner to their ranks – he could show them how to lighten up a bit.