MPAA Rating: PG/Genre: Computer-Animated Fantasy-Adventure Family/Voices of: Jim Sturgess, Emily Barclay, Ryan Kwanten, David Wenham, Anthony LaPaglia, Helen Mirren, Geoffrey Rush, Joel Edgerton, Hugo Weaving, Adrienne DeFaria, Miriam Margolyes, Sam Neill, Sacha Horler, Abbie Cornish, Richard Roxburgh, Essie Davis, Deborra-Lee Furness, Barry Otto, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Bill Hunter, Gareth Young/Runtime: 97 minutes
For some people hearing the name Zach Snyder will most likely see them flash back to the blood-soaked film 300, a solid movie from 2006 that takes a male bodybuilder competition and transforms it into something resembling Spartacus or Gladiator, but a lot grittier. Then there are those who might remember Snyder better either for his bleak stabs at superheroics with Watchmen and Zach Snyder’s Justice League or his bold and very well done take from 2004 on George A. Romero’s classic zombie masterpiece Dawn of the Dead. Yet despite which movie you know this distinct film helmer for best there is one element that is nowhere to be found in any of them. That of course would be fluffy CGI creatures you want to hug because of how cuddly they look. Yet it is those very creatures which are exactly what his slice of cinematic pie from 2010 known as Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole is able to contribute to the legacy of cinema. Of course if we’re being honest there is a lot more that this movie brings to the table, but there is no denying that this slice of cinematic pie leans more toward cute and cuddly than bloody and brutal. Yet be that as it may be, Snyder does somehow manage to bring both of those seemingly disparate camps together in what turns out to be a run of the mill narrative about good going up against evil with the distinction that the characters on both sides of the conflict are armor-rocking owl warriors instead of people. An adaptation of a series penned by Kathryn Lasky, Snyder’s first completely digital slice of cinematic pie is one that is able to combine every trademark of his and inserts them all in a film that was advertised as a kids’ film, but was made a little bit more for adults and yet after seeing it I honestly don’t think this knew just who it was meant for in the first place. Indeed this may be an incredible movie when looking at it from a technical point of view, but it is also one that is a bit boring at points, a little bit hard to figure out just what is going on in the beginning, thematically one note, and sadly just a bit unnecessary as well thus making for a truly mixed bag of a film.
The plot is as follows: Legend of the Guardians tells the story of a trinity of young owls by the names of Soren, Kludd, and Eglantine respectively who reside in a very tall tree and who aren’t quite yet at the age when owlings are able to fly and stay out all night drinking at the local barn with their owl friends (joking). Instead this trio decide to spend their days being regaled by their dear ol’ dad’s tales about the mythical Guardians of Ga’Hoole which were a pack of owls who swore to keep the lands safe from peril and wickedness. Things soon take a dark turn however when one night Soren and Kludd find themselves kidnapped by a group of owls known as the Pure Ones. A group that abducts owlings and teaches them to be either warriors or pickers with the latter being responsible for gathering up an item that is to be utilized as part of a deadly weapon that the Pure Ones hope to utilize in order to keep their place at the top. We soon see that Soren crosses paths with another owling by the name of Gylfie, and together our dynamic duo are able to thwart being placed under hypnosis and try to escape with the aid of an overseer by the name of Grimble who is covertly planning a coup against the Pure Ones and their leaders Metalbeak and Queen Nyra. Thus we see our heroes embark on a mission to find the legendary Guardians in order to persuade them of this very real threat to their land and also save their fellow owls being held prisoner before all truly is lost.
Right off the bat I am just going to come right out and say that Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole is a film that could perhaps best be viewed as “hard to follow” especially in the beginning. That is because there is way too much exposition being thrown the viewer’s way at the beginning though if you are someone who read the series this is an adaptation of you might not have as much trouble. Yet for those who were never able to go through the book series, this film’s downright dizzying beginning will result in you feeling a bit overwhelmed since everything from owl lingo to owl names is hurled at you with a rate of speed that feels like the owl movie equivalent to light speed from Star Wars. Indeed it isn’t until the action starts gaining momentum and 2 of the owls become captives that this film is able to locate a tempo and permit the viewer to finally be brought up to speed proper on our cast of characters and what exactly is occurring. It is also worth noting that this slice of cinematic pie also is blessed with a terrific cast of voice actors who not bring a much needed sense of gravitas to their respective parts, but who also bring a tone that is a direct reflection of the movie itself since Snyder’s combining of cuddly owls and a grim and brutal narrative needed actors who could both inspire kids to pester parents to buy them movie-themed merchandise (stuffed Sorens anyone?) and adults to take this visceral yet run of the mill showcase of the fight between good and evil somewhat seriously. Suffice it to say that the cast involved in this all do a fairly good job at constructing their respective parts as much as they are permitted by the script and that their distinct parts all are given a voice that is just as integral to the film as their overall role in the narrative thus aiding the audience in figuring out why they are despite their physical differences and the camp that they are a part of.
Now when looking at it from both a structure and thematic perspective, I am sorry to tell you that this film is no more and no less than a run of the mill entry in the adventure genre that operates with a typical assortment of thematic concepts that deal with the virtues of courage and belief as in having belief that they exist and that finding them within will ultimately help you succeed. Indeed as our main character finds himself trying to find out who he is and what he’s meant to before he thinks he is ready he must head out and uncover perilous and extraordinary things that will help mold him and strengthen what he believes in before having to face the forces of darkness directly. This is not just the narrative of this film, but also the narrative of nearly every single other movie of a similar ilk to it in existence. Yes Snyder does do a good job at the helm, but it does ultimately feel like he is depending on both the distinctness of the film being about owls as well the strong work from the digital animation department to really persuade you to see this film. Yes there are some more immersive thematic concepts at play, but even those feel slightly rehashed and done better elsewhere. It is also worth noting that Snyder tries to make this movie feel like something of a glimpse into what it means to be human. A concept he strengthens both visually by making the conflicting perspectives on the movie feel like they are Heaven and Hell since Snyder makes St. Aegolius a bleak, red, very warm, almost ghastly locale that just feels wicked, but then makes the Great Ga’Hoole Tree a bright, accommodating, and significantly more welcoming place aglow in colors of gold and white. Yet of course this is all stuff that has been done before and of course the only distinction is that again our main characters in this are owls.
Thus what I truly suspect this film will most likely be recognized for whenever people think back on it after watching it is for the work done in its animation department. Indeed animation really has come quite a ways. I mean it was only 2 decades ago, as of this writing, that a movie like Shrek was able to give us a digitally built animal in Donkey who could move and speak, but didn’t always look as convincing as the animators would have liked. 9 years after that came out however and I can honestly say that the owls in this movie look so real that you would be forgiven for thinking that they were the real deal. Indeed it really does seem that with every new animated film of this ilk that comes out, the land of movie magic gets even closer to perfecting the process and it is with that in mind that I can honestly say that this film is able to give us digital effects work that is closer than ever before (for that time) to looking as real as you or I. Suffice it to say then that this film is truly no less than absolutely astonishing in just how realistic it looks. Yet even with that in mind, the movie still can’t find a way to break itself free from the fact that despite how beautiful it looks, it’s still a very run of the mill film that is depending on its novel characters and work from the animation department to hide a very predictable and one note narrative. I mean maybe this story is able to just function better in book form since the characters and narrative therein are given more room to grow and be fleshed out, but whatever the case it can easily be said that Snyder’s adaptation as well done in key aspects that it is just doesn’t get to the heights necessary to make this film truly soar.
All in all whilst there is no denying that Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole is a gorgeous slice of cinematic pie to behold, it is also sad to note that how gorgeous this movie is proves to be a factor that can only carry a movie for so long before other things are needed to help support it the rest of the way. I mean don’t get me wrong there are a lot to respect about this movie; the character line-up is pretty good, the action beats are quite riveting, and the adventure is fairly well done. However with all of those positives this whole movie still feels quite unnecessary. Indeed its only genuine distinction between the other movies in the adventure genre is that it switches out human beings with owls and as a result this feels a lot less like an integrity-filled stab at trying to tell audiences a narrative that is even remotely relevant. Thus even though this film is not that difficult to sit through, it is also not that difficult to forget either as it is seriously lacking quite a bit in regards to uniqueness as well as thematic meaningfulness that a lot of other movies that have done this kind of thing before. Ultimately I must be honest with you: I don’t enjoy criticizing this movie, but when a movie lacks on the level that this one does in several key areas it’s hard to really categorize this as something you have to go out of your way to see. On a scale of 1-5 I give Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole a solid 3 out of 5.