THE LEGENDS OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA’HOOLE (2010) review
produced by: Zareh Nalbandian
directed by: Zack Snyder
rated PG (for some sequences of scary action)
runtime: 90 min.
U.S. release date: September 24, 2010
When I heard director Zack Snyder would be working on an animated feature starring talking owls, I honestly couldn’t give a hoot. I’m all for directors jumping genres and pushing themselves in different directions, but for the life of me, I couldn’t see it with Snyder. Maybe because I pictured a feather weight feel to a film about owls which seemed far removed from the speed-zombies (“Day of the Dead”), the bloody sword and sandals (“300”), and the provocatively depicted superheroes (“Watchmen”), Snyder had previously delivered. That being said, it is rare that I am pleasantly surprised by such an artistic detour but that’s exactly what happened when I saw this visually engaging and entirely immersive film.
The world drastically changes for the two brothers when they are kidnapped by a couple of foreign owls, after wandering one branch too many from home. Despite much mid-air protest and struggle, the fearful duo is delivered to a far-off land, where the evil queen Nyra (Helen Mirren), has plans for their future. They see many other young owls brought before the queen, who leads the Pure Ones, along with her ominous king, Metalbeak (Joel Edgerton). Their plan is to build some kind of electro-magnified weapon, powered by metal flecks that are found by the kidnapped owls, now hypnotized and put to slave labor. It becomes clear to Soren that the Guardians of Ga’Hoole do exist, when he hears that Metalbeak and Nyra have planned to send an army to attack the Guardians, supporting their belief that Barn Owls are the purest race of all owls.
While his brother is sent to the slave pits, Kludd pledges allegiance to the Pure Ones cause, finally feeling like there is a place for him as he begins his soldier training. Soren finds a friend in a smaller owl named Gylfie (Emily Barclay), and together, with help from the Pure Ones librarian Grimble (also voiced by Weaving), both manage to narrowly escape and begin a perilous journey to the Tree of Ga’Hoole. The two meet up with a couple quirky characters, like Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia), a Great Grey Owl and Digger (David Wenham), a Burrowing Owl, on their journey to find the Guardians. Their hope is to seek help in freeing the others that have been kidnapped but they soon learn they have another destiny to fulfill. Arriving at the Tree, they find themselves training in both flight and fight by Ezylryb (Geoffrey Rush), a wise old Whiskered Screech Owl. Soren, finally realizing his true calling, is disheartened to learn that Kludd now opposes him yet perseveres through his baptism of fire, becoming a courageous warrior owl.
Screenwriters John Orloff and Emil Stern both do a fine job condensing the first three books from the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series, written by Kathryn Lasky. Having not read the series, I can only imagine the vast characters and geography they had to work from in order to develop an understandable introduction to these characters and the world they inhabit. Not only can we clearly identify each owl (because let’s face it, 98% of the viewers are not going to be owl experts), with their different colorings, shapes and sizes, but we can tell who they are due to the script’s careful characterization. It’s not hard to invest oneself in these owls, whether they are whimsical, quirky, fierce, or humorous, they are genuinely engaging and intriguing. The animators, working with Snyder have done a fantastic job conveying the right amount of emotion and expression here. Although they have the same responses and reactions we might, they never stop looking like owls. I never would’ve thought an owl’s face could be so emotive, but what I saw was served the drama of the story appropriately.
Snyder is a visual director in his own right, so it actually makes sense that he would take a turn at the animation genre. I’m just thoroughly impressed he did so with owls, of all creatures, and also with how breathtaking it all is. Working with the CG-animation studio Animal Logic, the artists who brought us “Happy Feet”, Snyder has the tools to deliver visual wizardry at its fullest extent. Right from the start, these owls have just the right amount of detail that would feel overdone if it wasn’t for the right combination of stellar animation and superb voice talent.
As much as I grow tired of the misuse and abuse of 3D and its marketing saturation, I wouldn’t see this movie any other way. There is no 3D gimmick here, it simply enhances the soaring flight and clashing mid-air action, therefore the drama of the story is elevated by this factor.
What I appreciated most about this movie is that it doesn’t humanize or inject pop-culture references into the world it presents. This is a fantasy world inhabited by talking animals. They are not being absorbed into the world as we know it, rather we are being absorbed into their world. Like Watership Down or “The Secret of Nimh”, we are shown creatures who act like creatures and not anthropomorphic creatures. It helps the immersion process, that these characters do not mention humans once, nor do they act like them. Sure they have similar emotions, they sing and they wise-crack, but it rarely feels like a nudge-nudge reference to something our culture is familiar with.
Yet there are moments where the movie spirals into an unfortunate nosedive. In a lazy and unfortunate misstep, there’s a typical musical montage during a training sequence set to a tune called “To the Sky” a band called Owl City. Their emo-pop is so unnecessary and only when I learned the name of the band did I realize why they might’ve been included here. It completely goes against the tone and feel that Snyder and composer David Hirschfelder have established. I’m at a loss as to who exactly such an inclusion is for. At least that’s a minor quibble that can easily be overlooked when considered the film as a whole.
The story is a dark take on the classic hero’s journey mythos and while it has some humor, I would caution parents from bringing the wee ones. Danger and suspense are strong elements in this movie, it is Zack Snyder directing after all. The young owlet’s in peril, glow-eyed winged-warriors, and slashing talons, may all be a bit too much for the typical audience that flock to the latest animated feature. This is an ideal choice for a child at the right age and maturity, when the options are so often slim to none when they are too old for cartoon silliness and too young for typical teen fare.
The film is preceded by a brand new 3D short starring Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner entitled “Fur of Flying”. It’s hilarious, but it may confuse the audience into thinking the same kind of hilarity will follow, only with owls. That is not that the case at all. I can’t recall when a fantasy film composed of animals was this good, let alone taken seriously, but “Guardians,” is an enjoyable experience that I would easily repeat.
With its slo-mo action and dark themes, the movie has some of the signature Snyder elements he’s known for yet it is probably his most easily accessible movie. It doesn’t have to meet the expectations of a large fan base and is therefore not tied to any well-known source material. Well, at least no one I know has read the books. While it may not be for the younglings, I hope viewers will give this a chance and see it as the rousing and engaging work of entertainment that I did.