LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA'HOOLE (2010) (***)
Zack Snyder puts his unique stamp on this animated adventure. Based on Kathryn Lasky's young adult book series, the film is like LORD OF THE RINGS performed by owls via photoreal animation. The straightforward narrative is made more compelling simply through the visual originality.
The story begins with the young owl Soren (Jim Sturgess, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE) telling his little sister Eglantine (Adrienne DeFaria) the tales about the great battles of the Guardians. His brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten, TV's TRUE BLOOD) is tried of hearing about these old myths. Excited following their first flying lessons, the two brothers sneak out of the nest to practice without parental supervision. By accident they fall to the forest floor where they are kidnapped by agents of St. Aegolius, an orphanage that brainwashes its young owlets into being soldiers for the Pure Ones, led by Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton, THE SQUARE) and his bride Nyra (Helen Mirren, THE QUEEN). If the owlets are not the right breed or refuse to conform, they are hypnotized by the moon and forced to pick out metal flecks from the pellets owl cough up.
Soren befriends the elf owl Gylfie (Emily Barclay) and the pair escapes from St. Aegolius, engaging in a journey to find the Guardians and tell them about the Pure Ones' evil plans. Along they way they pick up companions. Digger (David Wenham, 300) is a twitchy burrow owl, while Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia, TV's WITHOUT A TRACE) is an older great grey who sees himself as a warrior poet. Later they find their snake nanny Mrs. P (Miriam Margolyes, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH) and meet the philosophical warrior Ezylryb (Geoffrey Rush, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN).
Animal Logic animated film; the same company that did HAPPY FEET. The work is breathtaking. Snyder's slow-mo action choreography, which was very evident in 300, captures both the grace and power of owls in flight. My first thought watching the film was that it made owls badass. No species, in my memory, has received more of an impressive image enhancement from a film. In one scene, Ezylryb takes Soren out in a thunderstorm to test his gizzards. The imagery of the owls flying and the raindrops falling around them is remarkable. In a contrasting scene, Soren must fly throw a woods on fire and the realism adds real tension to the moment as we swoop along with him. For theaters goers, like AVATAR, it's a rare instance where 3-D really works as part of the story.
Many complaints have surrounded the details of the world and Snyder's seriousness toward the material. But I believe his tone is correct. The world is self-contained. Yes, there are owls in helmets and metal craws and daggers battling. But it works for this world. I found beavers in chainmail from NARNIA sillier than anything worn by the birds here. Where others have gotten hung up might be up to the viewer and how much suspension of disbelief they can muster. The Pure Ones' evil weapon is based on the metal found in what amounts to owl hairballs. But would this have worked any better if Snyder poked fun at it? That kind of tongue and cheek stuff is only put in films so adults can avoid feeling silly for caring and Snyder wants us to care.
That is actually where I wish the film had done more. Character development is minimal. The story has an interesting brother vs. brother dynamic brewing but doesn't mine it for its full emotional impact. What we're left with is the earnestness of Soren to drive us forward. It's strong enough that one doesn't lose patience, but Soren is no Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins or even Lucy Pevensie.
The world Snyder creates is beautiful. The adventure he tells within that would is nothing original. Soren is a simple wide-eyed. He is an owl after all. But he believes in the Guardians and their world whole-heartedly. Because that world is so rich, we begin to care as well. If Snyder had made the film campy, he would have just given us a reason to blow it all off. The images wouldn't have had the impact if we thought it was all a joke.