The title alone tells viewers that this animated owl movie, featuring the voices of Academy Award-winners Helen Mirren and Geoffrey Rush, isn’t strictly for kids. (Try envisioning your three-year-old begging for the “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” toys for Christmas.) Though it doesn’t feature the winking comedy of a Brad Bird animation (Toy Story series, The Incredibles), or the poignant social commentary of other recent cartoons (Wall-E, Up), the Australian-produced Legend of the Guardians impresses kids and parents with stunning animation, especially in 3-D, that masks some considerable plot holes.
The story, severely condensed material from the first three of 15 books in the Guardians of Ga’Hoole young-adult fantasy series, centers around a scrappy young barn owl, Soren, who is kidnapped by some very bad fellow hooters called Pure Ones. These birds brainwash their abducted owlets into an army of loyal soldiers and pickers of “fleck,” some sort of radioactive material that can weaken owls like kryptonite does Superman. Apparently this is all part of an avian world-domination plan. After Soren finds a kindred spirit in spunky Gylfie, a mouthy (or should we say “beak-y”) elf owl, the pair escapes, intent on locating the mythical Guardians of Ga’Hoole, in hopes that they can stop the Pure Ones. They find them and, with shades of Lord of the Rings, prepare for battle to save the entire owl kingdom from the power-mad birds.
Zack Snyder directs the film, bringing his eye for action (previous efforts include 300 and The Watchmen), including plenty of slow-mo fight shots and graceful interludes of flying owls, each tiny, digital feather fluttering in the wind. The animators should be given a huge amount of credit for this film. They create breathtaking backdrops of golden sunsets and pink dawns, a foreboding canyon (the home base of the Pure Ones) and a magical Ga-Hoole tree that rivals Avatar’s Tree of Souls for luminosity. Every wing flap is a thrilling moment. The owls, too, are fantastic accomplishments; not only do the animators faithfully recreate several different owl species, each is made distinctive through their giant, gem-like eyes. Evil Queen Nyra (Helen Mirren) gets great blue and hazel-tinged orbs, while our hero Soren (Jim Sturgess) has amber irises.
If only the script had such attention to detail. With a few more laugh-out-loud moments or more character development in place of Snyder’s preference for heavy battle scenes, Legends of the Guardians might really have taken flight.