Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole
Gorgeous but unoriginal fantasy is mostly for the birds
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole
Directed by Zack Snyder
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, David Wenham, Helen Mirren
Much as Hollywood wants you, the ticket-buying public, to think of 3D movies as the next indispensable trend, they’re not. Given their exorbitant ticket price, 3D movies have become little more than “event” programming. People aren’t going to rush out and see one every weekend. With tickets up to $15 a pop, viewers (particularly those with families) aren’t willing to fork out that kind of dough on a regular basis. Sure, when the film is a big freakin’ holiday blockbuster must-see spectacular like Avatar, they’ll make it a runaway hit. But if it’s something as mediocre as last week’s Alpha and Omega (starring the voices of Justin Long and Hayden Panettiere!), audiences are perfectly content to wait until it hits DVD. (At which point they can own the movie for $15.)
Which brings us to Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. If movies were measured by the amount of space they take up on the marquee, LOTG:TOOG’H would be a guaranteed smash. But they aren’t. So we’ll just have to judge the film based on ... well, hmm. What will we measure it by? The traditional criteria of storytelling, directing, acting? Or the new criteria of 3D event movie wow power?
In the former category, Legend of the Guardians is sadly underpowered. The film is based on the first three or so books in Kathryn Lasky’s young adult fantasy series Guardians of Ga’Hoole. Despite its relative popularity in book form, the story comes across as a rather generic assemblage of standard-issue fantasy themes. Even casual readers will recognize huge chunks of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars and the various legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Except with birds instead of people.
Our story starts with Soren (Jim Sturgess, Across the Universe), a noble and dreamy-minded Tyto (that is: barn owl), learning to fly alongside his reckless brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten, “True Blood”). While hopping around their home tree, the two fledgelings are kidnapped by the evil owls of St. Aggie’s. Lorded over by the monstrous Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton, Star Wars: Episode III) and his aristocratic wife Nyra (Helen Mirren, The Queen), St. Aggie’s is little more than a training school for soldiers. Soldier owls, that is. Soldier owls that will be used to take over the world! ... A world that does not appear to include any humans, mind you.
Ruthless and simple-minded, Kludd quickly bows to the authority at St. Aggie’s and becomes a little fascist in training. Soren, on the other hand, rebels. He chooses to take hope in the legends that his father taught him, legends of a heroic band of winged warriors known as the Guardians of Ga’Hoole. Having mastered the basics of flying thanks to his preternatural wingmanship, Soren escapes from St. Aggie’s and goes in search of these Guardians.
As is expected in this sort of quest, our young hero attracts a number of companions along the way, including tiny navigator Gylfie (Emily Barclay), burly warrior-poet Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia) and scrappy surveillance expert Digger (David Wenham). Of course, pure-of-heart and steadfast-of-purpose Soren soon guides his companions to the fabled land of Ga’Hoole. Which turns out to be yet another school in which young’uns train their various magical powers. (Thank you very much, legacy of Harry Potter.)
In the end, of course, there’s a big ol’ battle in which the legendary Guardians of Ga’Hoole go head-to-head with the Metal Beak’s evil minions—only to fall prey to some nasty machinations that can only be undone by our underaged, under-trained hero. All in all, complete boilerplate fantasy.
Which brings us to the second of the criteria under which Legend of the Guardians is likely to be judged: the high-tech razzle dazzle. As a special effects demo reel, Legend of the Guardians is mightily impressive. The animation is quite wondrous. Shot entirely in Australia (as the voice-cast might indicate), the film comes from the same studio that gave us Happy Feet—a good-looking but painfully preachy film about tap-dancing penguins and their effect on global warming. Thankfully, Guardians avoids any sort of overt moral other than the age-old “good triumphs over evil.” The battle scenes, birds strapped up with sharp metal gaffs and all, are rather violent (and look an awful lot like computerized cockfights). But with their swooping, swirling and flying, they’re wonders of 3D. At this point, it should be clear to all that three-dimensional computer animation serves as a much better source for 3D film than live-action footage. (Compare this to Clash of the Titans and you’ll see what I mean.)
Director Zack Snyder (seemingly stepping out of his age bracket after Dawn of the Dead and Watchmen) presides over some incredible camerawork here. Legend of the Guardians has some jaw-dropping depth-of-field moments. Items passing close to the camera (swooping birds, falling raindrops) one-up even Avatar, inspiring vocal gasps of surprise from audiences. The shadow-puppet final credits alone are worthy of some technical Oscar.
So where does that leave us? Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole is overly familiar kiddie fare at best, an unoriginal pastiche of heroic fantasy tropes at worst. But it does look wicked cool in 3D. Is that enough to lure audiences? ... (Prepare to receive obligatory owl-based pun.) Who knows?