A film review by Craig J. Koban October 2, 2010


2010, PG, 85 mins.


Featuring the voices of:


Helen Mirren: Nyra / Geoffrey Rush: Ezylryb / Jim Sturgess: Soren / Hugo Weaving: Noctus/Grimble / Emily Barclay: Gylfie / Abbie Cornish: Otulissa / Anthony LaPaglia: Twilight / Sam Neill: Allomere

Directed by Zack Snyder / Written by John Orloff and Emil Stern


Hmmmm….a family friendly animated film from the director of DAWN OF THE DEAD and 300? 

Okay.  Didn't see that coming.

To quote its long-winded and somewhat disenchanting title, LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA’HOOLE represents a highly unique career segue for director Zach Snyder, whose previous films have all been unapologetically R-rated and adults-only entertainments.  Although his detour here seems somewhat odd, Snyder nonetheless brings his exceptionally strong penchant for graphic design to LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS, which is an unqualified visual triumph on all discernable levels.  

This CGI-fantasy – based loosely on the first three books, THE CAPTURE, THE JOURNEY, and THE RESCUE, of the GUARDIANS OF GA’HOOLE series by Kathyrn Lasky – is awash with scene after scene of astoundingly immersive animation from Animal Logic, the same digital effects studio responsible for HAPPY FEET.  The end results are a grand explosion of cutting edge creativity and immaculately textured and detailed images, ones that easily are the equal  – if not superior – to the best efforts from the Pixar canon.  LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS is an eye candy feast for the eyes throughout its 85 minutes. 

My main problem, however,  with the film is that its underlining story failed to immerse me as much as its exotically sumptuous and stunning scenery.  The visuals on screen stirred me to no end, but the narrative failed to engage me on an emotional level, which had the unfortunate side effect on leaving me feel somewhat empty as I exited the cinema.  This is where the Pixar films have this film beat to no end: those films knew precisely how to marry together extraordinary sights with characters and themes that delicately tugged at our heartstrings and made us care, but for as well voice-acted and agreeable as the characters are in LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS, I just felt that its lush and splendid artistic panache overwhelmed any semblance of a meaningful and emotional cord the story should have struck with me.  What we are left with is something that is not as dramatically rich as its beautiful sights. 

The story in question also struggles to escape from being woefully derivative: It involves a coming-of-age hero’s journey set against the backdrop of a long, arduous, and adventurous quest across exotic and foreboding terrain that has the nagging familiarity of LORD OF THE RINGS and STAR WARS.  The film involves, as its title suggests, owls, but of a decidedly more expressive and verbal kind, and also ones that are able to play musical instruments, forge armaments out of fire, and adorn themselves with battle-ready weaponry and armor for epic wars against their hostile enemies.  The plot has many recognizable elements: there’s two brothers that become estranged and then mortal enemies; there’s a kooky old Obi-Wan Kenobi war hero; there’s a malevolent queen hell bent on world domination; there’s kid...make that owl-napppings that place the young victims into slavery; and the obligatory final stand and climatic battle between good and evil.  There is even some pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo about the all-knowing sage teaching a young owl how to “use his gizzard”, which sounds awfully similar to The Force. 

Jim Sturgess voices Soren (which sounds awfully like Saruman or Sauron from Tolkien’s literary universe) a young and wide-eyed owl that's nearly able to be at one with his inner gizzard and learn to fly on his own.  His brother, Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) competes with him in their respective eagerness to soar into the heavens, but he also shares his passion for the tales of the exploits of “The Guardians” by their father (Hugo Weaving, with a voice born for animation).  The Guardians, like the Jedi, were the…uh…guardians of peace and justice in owl society.  Yet, these bedtime tales seem far too fantastical and far-fetched to be real…right? 

One day Soren and his sibling are out stumbling from one tree branch to the next, but find themselves on the ground, which is a dangerous no-man’s land for owls.  Within no time both brothers are owl-napped by a vindictive owl cult called the “Pure Ones” that is lead by a their equally malicious queen, Nyra (a terrific Helen Mirren).  The Pure Ones take all owls they feel are beneath them and then place them into slave camps where prospective soldiers are segregated from menial pickers, the latter that are forced to pick up and sort through vomited up owl pellets (yuck!).  The rest of the hypnotized slave labor is being used to help assemble a doomsday weapon with powerful metal flecks (still trying to figure that one out) that will destroy all owls not belonging to the Pure Ones (Death Star, anyone?).     

Soren believes that he must take it upon himself to escape and seek out the Guardians of Ga’hoole – if they really exist – to end the Queen’s tyranny once and for all.  Unfortunately for him, Kludd has fallen to the dark side of the gizzard and has joined the ranks of the Pure Ones.  With the assistance of his new pals Gylfie (Emily Barclay), Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia) and Digger (David Wenham), Soren does manage to find his hero and savior in the form of Ezylryb (the great and commanding Geoffrey Rush), an elderly and experienced Guardian that will teach Soren the ways of the Force…dang it, I mean gizzard…to confront the Queen and save the slaves.  To round off the STAR WARS comparisons even further, Ezylryb also must have a final confrontation with his arch nemesis, Metalbeak, an owl with a Darth Vader-like mask that hides his scarred and charred face. 

LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS, as stated, is an auditory/visual nirvana in the manner that Snyder and company creates a painstaking eye for painterly detail with the images on screen.  The owls themselves are hypnotically realistic and nuanced in all of their feathered grandeur, although I will confess that, at times, it was decidedly difficult to distinguish one from the other, especially during the battle scenes.  Scenes of flight – which make superlative use of 3D, much like  HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON did earlier this year – are thoroughly engaging and magical, and when the film is not wowing us with eye-gasmic moments like that, we even have intense and surprisingly violent (at least for a PG-rated animated film) battle scenes with all of those cute and adorable owls sporting razor sharp metal talons on top of their natural ones while wearing ornate helmets in scenes of wanton owl-on-owl mayhem that are eerily like the ones Snyder orchestrated in 300, albeit with no human Spartan warriors.  The film certainly develops a pulse during these rousing and spectacularly realized battles, but I believe that they may be a bit too extreme and graphic for young viewers. 

Snyder does populate the film with an exemplary voice cast, to be sure, whom all lend a great deal of solemn gravitas to the proceedings (Hugo Weaving, Helen Mirren, and Geoffrey Rush in particular make the film feel that much more regal) and the themes that the film contains – faith, family loyalty, betrayal, and sacrificing oneself for the greater good of all – are decent ones for young viewers.  Moreover, LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS is one of those exceedingly rare breed of entertainments that makes appropriate usage of 3D technology to subtly suggest a third dimension without engaging in distracting and gimmicky overkill.  There is a moment involving a slow-motion montage of Soren soaring and gliding through a fierce rain storm as part of his training to fly that is ethereally beautiful with the added dimensionality, which is hardly a descriptor I have used before to describe 3D films, which usually are the product of hasty and lackluster upconversions.  LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS is a 3D effort that rightfully deserves the extra surcharge to see it beyond a 2D presentation. 

Yet, again I must lament that LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS did not stir the soul as much as it wowed the eyes.  Too much of the film’s look and story threads seems lifted from Tolkien and Lucas, not to mention that those unfamiliar with the source material might need to jot down notes to makes sense of the hard-to-pronounce character names and their dynamics and relationships at first.  Snyder should be given points for daring to do something unequivocally different after films like 300 and WATCHMEN, and as a self-professed comic book and fantasy geek as well as a visual auteur, he is more than equal to the task of forging a lusciously mounted and strikingly executed animated film.  LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS is pure escapism in terms of it transfixing our eyes at the screen for an hour and a half in a state of childlike awe and wonder, but beyond that we are dealt with imitative ideas and a tedious story that just lacks the same sensation of transcending appeal. 

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