Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

Beautifully rendered, but how will kids take it?

Zack Snyder, the stylish helmer of the surprisingly effective Dawn of the Dead remake, the simple-minded but thoroughly entertaining 300 and the divisive (but mostly brilliant) film adaptation of Watchmen, is, along with David Lynch, David Cronenberg, the Troma guys and Takashi Miike, probably one of the last people you would ever expect to be put in charge of a cutesy, child-orientated animated film. Like all of his films, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole is a visually stunning spectacle, but also like them, it is wincingly brutal. Though touted as from the minds of the gleefully idiosyncratic, Oscar-winning animated film Happy Feet, the cute quirkiness is often lost amid a dark, violent tone which recalls the less forgiving works from classic Disney, for both better and worse.

Soren (Jim Sturgess) is a young, chirpy Barn Owl who is frequently told stories of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole by his father, Noctus (Hugo Weaving); the Guardians are strong, brave Owls who endeavour to protect any of their feathered breathren who fall into harm’s way. When Soren and his jealous older Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) fall out of a tree and are captured by the evil Owl Metalbeak (Joel Edgerton) and his mate, Nyra (Helen Mirren), they face a difficult choice; join their ranks, or become a slave. After Kludd acquiesces while Soren virulently refuses, Soren bands together with a band of opressed Owls to try and not only escape, but find the Guardians of Ga’Hoole – the only people who can put a stop to the slavery.

Though itself adapted from Kathryn Lasky’s beloved kids novels of the name, this is a fairly unimaginative effort from Warner Bros’ animation stable, taing the “enslaved minority use their ourage to break their shackles” routine taken from just about every narrative from Schindler’s List to The Matrix. The plot, ultimately, is sparse, and its regard takes a backseat to some eye-wateringly good animation, which accounts for most of this review’s three stars. The characters, while rendered with the greatest cuteness in mind, they change allegiances at the drop of a hat, are largely one-dimensional and lack the heart and distinct personality of what we have by now come to expect from Pixar.

Again, though, the film is virtually untouchable from an aesthetic perspetive, but whether this will be enough to guide it to a Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination is another story altogether, especially with the peristent rumour that the category will be limited to three slots this year, with the much-hyped Megamind and Tangled yet to be released (Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon are locks to nab the first two slots). The detail of every feather has evidently been constructed with the utmost, mind-boggling attention-to-detail, and those scenes in which the owls fly betwixt puffy clouds – allowing a grand display of some superb ambient lighting – are, despite some oddly inconspicuous use of 3D, absolutely exhilarating.

Though kids are likely to be taken enough with the brilliant presentation and straight-forward story, the dubious propriety of the content is another matter. Admirably keen not to patronise the ankle-biters and indeed daring in many ways, the surprisingly mature, brooding narrative features some undeniably savage death scenes; an owl is presumably burned alive, while one is dashed into little but a cloud of feathers, and another is impaled with a stick. Though there are liberally employed cutaways, the inferences – of clashing metal and torn feathers – might still be too distressing for the youngest children (unsurprisingly, the film was awarded a PG rating rather than a U from the BBFC). Perhaps the heightened sense of realism implied by the exuberant CGI (as opposed to Disney’s medieval though beautifully hand-drawn work), or the potent human parallel of the film’s allegory, along with a society ever-more concerned with “protecting the children”, has left us at this meek disposition; what’s certain is that kids are going to respond to it in a spectrum of ways.

Ambitious, divisive, and gorgeous to observe, Snyder’s directorial debut in a new medium is an apt reminder of both his strengths and flaws as a filmmaker; ingenuity is scarce though visual impact is unmistakable, and it packs enough of a wallop to make it barely worth recommending on that basis alone.


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