'Owls': Hoo Hoo ... Who Cares?
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Watching "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole," Zack Snyder's PG 3-D animated epic adapted from Kathryn Lasky's young adult fantasy series, your head fairly splinters trying to wrap around two contradictory realizations. The first is that the movie is undeniably beautiful: full of stunning vistas and photo-realistic animal characters, richly textured wood and stone, zooming from the close-up spark of metal on metal to sweeping visions of flight and wonder. The second is that it is crippled by its script: weighed down with fantasy clichés, bloated with characters we barely meet -- never mind get to know -- and torn apart by the clash between talking-animal kids stuff and intense action and thematic ideas more suitable for adults. Snyder and his crew have made a film for an improbably narrow audience -- I can imagine 12 1/2-year-old boys being enthralled by it -- but they've made it with such skill and care it's more a shame than a failure.
Owl brothers Soren (Jim Sturgess) and Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) are abducted from their home and taken to the territory of the "Pure Ones," a group of racist/fascist/expansionist owls with a plot to conquer all. Soren escapes, but Kludd stays because he likes the community, and strength, he's seen with the "Pure Ones." Picking up various supporting characters along the way, Soren makes his way to the tree of Ga'Hoole, the long-lost home of the Guardians, Owl heroes who "protect the weak, mend the broken, and vanquish the evil," which sounds like a lost slogan from the Hillary-for-president campaign. Soren and the Guardians (including Geoffrey Rush's Churchillian old warrior Ezylryb) of course fly to stop the "Pure Ones," and Soren has to face his brother, and so on and so forth.
"Legend of the Guardians" is hamstrung by high fantasy tropes and tricks -- too many characters with names that look like the end result of dropping something on the keyboard, a black-and-white worldview, Joseph Campbell-style heroes who must vanquish evil and find their father figures and other stuff we've seen better done in "Lord of the Rings" and "Star Wars." (Bad, bland fantasy epics love to foist new characters on us, in an endless stream, as if the crowded room means we're not going to notice what a dull party it is.) Much like "Avatar," this is a movie that boldly ventures forth in its technique but, in its plot, stays on ground so well-trod it's trampled into dead dry dust. It's nearly impossible to tell the owls apart, even with distinctive voices and cosmetic touches and costuming, and they're so multitudinous in number that the movie becomes a blur of beaks and feathered faces.
The epic battle sequences also feel disjointed and strange. Snyder, after "300," is no stranger to blood-and-thunder action, although many found its static bloody hysteria to be more a matter of thud-and-blunder. But that kind of intensity feels all wrong for a kids film -- do kids need to see an owl and a bat have what is, essentially, a knife fight? Or owls fight each other with metal blades on their claws like something out of a cockfight? There's no blood here, and the movie's fairly honest about the predatory life of owls, but the film's finale -- with desperate flights and fights in a burning forest, broken bones and a villain of the piece being slain by having a burning stick plunged through his heart -- is strong stuff.
The 3-D is nicely done -- there's nothing here as magnificent as the flying sequences in "How to Train Your Dragon," but there are a few nice moments -- and the illusion of depth makes it a little easier to take your mind off the reality that you're watching nothing more than math and light dance around the screen. (I cannot imagine "Legend of the Guardians" holding up especially well in 2-D, or on the small screen, so if your kids insist you have to go, forking out for the more expensive 3-D option may be the only way to make the best of a bad break.) Snyder's trying something different, which is a noble aim. But aims aren't end results. Someone needs to gently whisper in Snyder's ear that looking at his filmography -- the ambitious-but-mishandled "Watchmen," the roaring bore that is "300" and his zippy, zesty zombie debut "Dawn of the Dead" -- it's clear his first film, and best film, is perhaps not coincidentally the one with the lowest budget.
Yes, Snyder's taking a chance here, and doing something bold, and all of the animals and settings look impressive. But every time the owls of the film take flight, they're dragged down by John Orloff and Emil Stern's screenplay, by the excess weight of too many characters, by the inertia of too many overly familiar fantasy plot elements, by the heavy burden of bombastic brutal violence totally at odds with the talking animals and unfunny waanh-waanh comedy relief. "Legend of the Guardians" is an unintended illustration of the dangers of modern high-tech movie making, where visual talent and high technology can make a 3-D computer-animated movie that fills the screen but is still completely empty.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.