The hour of the owl has come. This creature of the night has shared top billing with the Pussycat when they went to sea, done cameo roles in horror movies, and is still stuck in bit parts, for example, as mail courier in the Harry Potter series. Now finally it has a full-length feature of its own in “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole”.
The movie should delight not only the many fans of Kathryn Lasky’s multi-volume fantasy for young people but also bird lovers and, especially, the uninitiated. Based closely on the series’ first three books, it’s a crash course on the epic. But in the course of the survey, the movie surprises with its super-realistic visual style and soaring dramatic moments.
Set in an era before or after mankind as we know it, the story is spun around the abduction of two brothers, who are barely out of their owlet years, by members of the tribe of the Pure Ones. Before the incident, the father of the fledglings had fed them tales about the heroism of the legendary Guardians, hammering the message that “through our gizzards the voices of the angels of the Guardians speak to us”.
However, the siblings, Kludd and younger Soren, are the stuff of two different gizzards. Even back in the nest, Kludd was skeptical about the existence of the Guardians, while Soren idolized them. At the sinister St. Aegolius Academy for Orphaned Owls where they are now imprisoned, Kludd proves to be an easy prey for queen Nyra, who grooms him as a prime warrior dedicated to upholding the superiority of the species. Meanwhile Soren puts up a fight, first by resisting the cult’s bird-brain-washing sessions called “moon-blinking” where the feathered captives end up glassy-eyed, ready for slave labor, and then by forming a band of four unlikely rebels.
Given the crowded cast of characters of the books — which include a snake, a Tasmanian devil and a gaudy echidna –the director and scenarists of “Legend of the Guardians” had the tough task of paring the film’s cast and action down to essentials and they succeed just so, and perhaps not to the satisfaction of fans who may have their own favorites. By concentrating on the events around Soren’s escape and the showdown between the Pure Ones and the Guardians, the movie achieves a leanness of narrative that allows it to also weave animation magic.
“Legend” is not merely the illustration of the books’ illustrations. It’s a happy exploitation of the possibilities of computer graphic and design, capturing fully the “dimension” in 3Dimensional. Building on the ornithological research done earlier by the author, the animators and director Zack Snyder, who had previous CG imagery experience in his breakthrough feature “300”, bring several subspecies of hooting or screeching owls to life, down to their downy plumage, odd facial disks, ear tufts and whiskers. And for the settings, the creators draw from nature’s exotic landscapes, applying an autumnal palette of russet, rich copper and gold. All these efforts reach a memorable climax when Soren and friends pierce through storm and sleet then soar majestically to the home of the Guardians.
Both “300” and “Legend” touch on the theme of racial superiority, but this time Snyder puts himself on the other side of the fence. While “300”, the 2007 historical action epic set amid rippling abs, was flayed for its fascistic elements, “Legend” is firmly anchored on correctness, with some old-fashioned virtues such as bravery and justice thrown in. Snyder is apparently one of those pragmatic directors who set aside their biases to deliver the original intent of the source, the producers or the scenarists.
The characters and voice assets are some of the movie’s finest points, although main hero Soren’s personality comes out somewhat flat despite a soulful turn by Jim Sturgess. Strangely, Soren’s face evokes the reticence and questioning look of Elijah Wood’s Frodo in the “Lord of the Ring” films. Kludd (voiced by Ryan Kwanten), however, is a revelation; in every scene, each frown and wink of an eye traces his evolution from a guilt-wracked novice to a hardened convert. As Nyra, Helen Mirren is in every phrase a queen, and in every inflection deliciously evil. For comic relief, the oddball duo of Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia) and Digger (David Wenham) accent their lines with mock Shakespearean flourish that even non-theater buffs will love.
For adolescents, the occasional violence and the aerial slash-fest that cap “Legend” may not pose a problem, but for kids under 10, they might. Snyder and his editors do a conscientious job by panning away from violence, editing out even the hint of blood and presenting the final fratricidal battle in bold but exciting strokes – it’s hard to differentiate the attacker from the victim – but still, the sight of steel-reinforced talons can be chilling for the youngest ones.
For the toddlers among the viewers of animated features, I have devised a “Scary Scale” for rating their possible impact based on grotesqueness, violence and depiction of death. S stands for safe and sound, C for carefully done, A for advising the kids in advance, R for read the reviews and reconsider, and Y for you’ve been warned. I would have given “Toy Story 3” an A and “Despicable Me” an S. “Legend of the Guardians” meanwhile gets a C.