Zack Snyder, he of blood and guts and glory 300 fame, surprises with his turn towards a younger audience. With LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS — THE OWLS OF GAHOOLE as his vehicle, he uses his gift for invention and translates from the grim to the enchanting his keen understanding of what makes an enthralling adventure tick. The result is a rich fantasy brought to the screen with enormous heart.
Based on the first three books in the series by Kathryn Lasky, it is a classic of the genre populated by owls who fall prey to the same sort of failings that humans do. It also doesnt stint on the very real sense of danger to all involved, starting with a mouse that becomes dinner for the cutest owlet of the film, and then becomes that same owlets first pellet, with only remnants of its bones and fur and something that looks suspiciously, but zoologically incorrectly, like an eyeball.
The hero is Soren (Jim Sturgess), an owlet on the verge of learning to fly. His head is filled with stories about the noble Guardians and their defeat of the so-called Pure Ones, a distinctly fascist movement led by the evil Metal Beak, for the domination by the Tytos, aka barn owls, of all the owl kingdoms. The Guardians, an alliance of owls that decimated the Pure Ones before retiring to a mist-covered island, GaHoole, on the other side of the ocean. Soren cant get enough of the story, neither can baby sister Eglantine (Adrieinne deFaria), who still sports her baby fluff. Younger brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten), though, dismisses the story and the lessons of honor that they teach. He also spends more time than he should brooding about being less adept than his older brother at everything, including safe landings on branches near the family hollow. Its a time-honored dynamic and one explored with heart-wrenching angst that adds fire to a story that isnt afraid to be sentimental.
An unfortunate eagerness to practice flying without adult owl supervision results in the brothers being kidnapped, along with owlets of many other species, and the even more unfortunate discovery that the Pure Ones are all too real and still plotting evil. Soren is horrified by their master race mentality, though Kludd is entranced by it, and by their sultry queen, Nyra (Helen Mirren). Soren, enduring close-calls with the nefarious machine the Pure Ones are developing, the brain-washing of moon-blinking, and another owls regurgitated pellet, defies long odds to escape, and even longer ones to find the Guardians and warn them of the Pure Ones machinations.
There is a feeling of marching a bit too quickly through the first three books, that some elements are missing, as in not explicitly laid out for the viewer, but such is the magic of the film, the way it has perfectly tapped into the very soul of the story, that is just doesnt matter. The essence of the story is intact and, more, magnificent in a cinematic execution that can only be called magical. The filmmakers have taken prose and turned it into a sweeping visual experience that stirs the very soul.
For all the truly vertiginous battle sequences, equally effective in 2-D and 3-D,and the sight of Soren gliding through a water spout on the currents of both mysticism and courage, its the small things that are the most impressive, such as the large expressive eyes that do the work of conveying even the most nuanced of emotions using animation that is nothing short of dazzling. Unregenerate evil and the sweetest goodness are both accomplished with equal elan and an understanding of the underlying feeling that transcends animation. Combined with perfectly complementary writing, it can encompass the tragedy of brother turning against brother, and the whimsy of a barred owl who is also a bard owl. All done without once turning the owl faces or bodies into anything resembling human, though there is something every reminiscent of Sam Neill in the owl he voices, Allomere, and of an essential Geoffrey Rush-ness in his owl incarnation, Ezylryb. Instead, the animators wisely capitalize on the exquisite natural majesty of those birds in all their forms.
The characters are vibrant, most of them fully defined, all voiced evocatively, and animated such that each feather of their bodies, downy owlet fluff to razor-sharp flight feather, has its own personality almost as pronounced as the owl wearing it. Soren is a beguiling mix of innocence and courage, idealistic and bold, qualities that come to the fore when doing battling villains, or when he becomes the comforter of smaller, weaker abductee Gylfie (Emily Barclay), an elf owl with huge eyes but great determination. The film hits upon something primal when it shows Soren literally taking Gylfie under his wing when he himself is just as frightened.
As a nemesis as epic as the story, Nyra is possibly the most evil animated queen since the one in SNOW WHITE, with Mirrens sultry voice ringing with just the right undertone of malignancy. Her mate, Metal Beak pales in comparison, though voiced with rumbling menace by Joel Edgerton, he is certainly not easily dismissed. The usual comic relief coming from sidekicks is nicely filled with a burrowing owl, Digger (David Wenham) given telling jokes that annoy his pal Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia), a barred owl given to breaking into ballads whose quality varies wildly. Snake-nanny Mrs. P, voiced with prim propriety by Miriam Marolyes, is the only tepid element, coming off as a caricature of the standard British nanny with nothing memorable about her.
Tinted in tones that Mucha himself would have chosen, the biggest failing is a pop-music montage that is the least fun part of the film, busy though it is with Sorens warrior training and some close-up looks at the ingenious razor-like talon guards that are part of the battle gear, as well as properly ornate and mythically inspired helmets they don. The rest, youll pardon the expression, soars with the joy of storytelling.