From a financial standpoint, that development is easy to understand. Quality animation can be ridiculously expensive to produce, and failing to target the family audience might feel like the equivalent of setting a room full of money on fire. But while the Kathryn Lasky book series that inspired Legend of the Guardians is aimed at young readers, director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) has taken it visually in a direction that feels more like The Lord of the Rings. Despite some exceedingly familiar genre elements, it proves compelling because it doesn’t do everything you expect an animated feature to do.
Snyder and screenwriters John Orloff and Emil Stern adapt portions of the first three Ga’hoole books in this tale of an owl-populated world—apparently somewhere in Australia, from the predominant accents—where a young barn owl named Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess) is just learning to fly. On an ill-advised adventure outside the nest, Soren and his brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) are kidnapped and taken to St. Aegolius’ Orphanage, where they are put to work finding mysterious, powerful “flecks” for an unknown purpose. When Soren and his new friend, the elf owl Gylfie (Emily Barclay), manage to escape, they seek out the legendary owls of Ga’hoole, said to be devoted to battling injustice.
Lasky’s books themselves are fairly dark, so it’s no great change to see Snyder continuing in that direction. The film does aim for more comic relief, both in the inept St. Aegolius guards Jadd (Leigh Whannell) and Jutt (Angus Sampson), and in lightening up the personalities of Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia) and Digger (David Wenham), the owls who end up accompanying Soren and Gylfie on their quest for the Guardians of Ga’hoole. Surprisingly, those moments rarely feel forced, perhaps a result of photo-realistic animation style making the characters seem more genuine than cartoonish.
This adaptation’s more significant change, however, comes in a stronger emphasis on the motives of the evil owls of St. Aegolius—led by the barn owls Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton) and Nyra (Helen Mirren)—and on the consequences of challenging them. The “Pure Ones” are essentially Tyto (barn owl) supremacists, who tempt Kludd with the appeal of taking his rightful place above other owls. As Soren joins up with the owls of Ga’hoole and prepares for what he believes from his bedtime stories will be glorious and noble war, he’s corrected by his grizzled veteran mentor, Ezylryb (Geoffrey Rush): “It’s not glorious, it’s not beautiful, it’s not even heroic. It’s just what’s right.”
That’s a fairly sophisticated approach to de-mythologizing battles of good vs. evil, and Snyder backs it up by making his battle sequences brutal and, at times, chaotic. He does enjoy employing his pet stylistic tic of hitting the slow-mo button during those battles, which makes them easier to digest for younger viewers, but also makes it clear that these are birds slicing into each other with metal-tipped battle claws. Throw in a particularly gorgeous use of 3-D and you’ve got yourself something that’s thoroughly immersive during its most intense moments.
None of which is to avoid the obvious: When it comes to epic fantasy, we’ve been-here-and-done-that for a whole lot of it. The brave young owl quartet joining the apocalyptic fray becomes akin to the hobbits of this particular adventure, and many of the other characters take on archetypal roles from other similar tales. By the time we reach a climactic scene that could inspire eye rolling for its echoes of Star Wars’ fanfare finale, it would be easy to forget that the strong voice performances and the character design have led to a slightly more complex narrative experience. It’s not bad for kids; it’s just not really kid stuff. And in my own little cinema dream world, it would be nice to see an animated film willing to stand up and admit it.
LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA’HOOLE
Jim Sturgess, Geoffrey Rush