A film review by Craig J. Koban October 2, 2010
LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE
OWLS OF GA'HOOLE
2010, PG, 85 mins.
2010, PG, 85 mins.
Featuring the voices of:
Helen Mirren: Nyra / Geoffrey Rush: Ezylryb / Jim Sturgess:
Soren / Hugo Weaving: Noctus/Grimble / Emily Barclay: Gylfie /
Abbie Cornish: Otulissa / Anthony LaPaglia: Twilight / Sam
family friendly animated film from the director of DAWN OF THE DEAD and 300?
Didn't see that coming.
To quote its long-winded and somewhat disenchanting title, LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA’HOOLE represents a highly unique career segue for director Zach Snyder, whose previous films have all been unapologetically R-rated and adults-only entertainments. Although his detour here seems somewhat odd, Snyder nonetheless brings his exceptionally strong penchant for graphic design to LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS, which is an unqualified visual triumph on all discernable levels.
CGI-fantasy – based loosely on the first three books, THE CAPTURE, THE
JOURNEY, and THE RESCUE, of the GUARDIANS OF GA’HOOLE series by Kathyrn
Lasky – is awash with scene after scene of astoundingly immersive
animation from Animal Logic, the same digital effects studio responsible
for HAPPY FEET. The end
results are a grand explosion of cutting edge creativity and immaculately
textured and detailed images, ones that easily are the equal
– if not superior – to the best efforts from the Pixar canon.
LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS is an eye candy feast for the eyes
throughout its 85 minutes.
main problem, however, with the film is that its underlining story
failed to immerse me as much as its exotically sumptuous and stunning
scenery. The visuals on
screen stirred me to no end, but the narrative failed to engage me on an
emotional level, which had the unfortunate side effect on leaving me feel
somewhat empty as I exited the cinema.
This is where the Pixar films have this film beat to no end: those
films knew precisely how to marry together extraordinary sights with
characters and themes that delicately tugged at our heartstrings and made
us care, but for as well voice-acted and agreeable as the characters are
in LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS, I just felt that its lush and splendid
artistic panache overwhelmed any semblance of a meaningful and emotional cord the
story should have struck with me. What
we are left with is something that is not as dramatically rich as its
story in question also struggles to escape from being woefully derivative:
involves a coming-of-age hero’s journey set against the backdrop
of a long, arduous, and adventurous quest across exotic and foreboding
terrain that has the nagging familiarity of LORD OF THE RINGS and STAR
WARS. The film
involves, as its title suggests, owls, but of a decidedly more expressive
and verbal kind, and also ones that are able to play musical instruments,
forge armaments out of fire, and adorn themselves with battle-ready
weaponry and armor for epic wars against their hostile enemies.
The plot has many recognizable elements: there’s two brothers
that become estranged and then mortal enemies; there’s a kooky old Obi-Wan Kenobi war hero; there’s a malevolent queen hell bent on world
domination; there’s kid...make that owl-napppings that place the
young victims into slavery; and the obligatory final stand and climatic
battle between good and evil. There
is even some pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo about the all-knowing sage teaching
a young owl how to “use his gizzard”, which sounds awfully similar to
Sturgess voices Soren (which sounds awfully like Saruman or Sauron from
Tolkien’s literary universe) a young and wide-eyed owl that's nearly able
to be at one with his inner gizzard and learn to fly on his own.
His brother, Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) competes with him in their
respective eagerness to soar into the heavens, but he also shares his
passion for the tales of the exploits of “The Guardians” by their
father (Hugo Weaving, with a voice born for animation).
The Guardians, like the Jedi, were the…uh…guardians of peace
and justice in owl society. Yet,
these bedtime tales seem far too fantastical and far-fetched to be
day Soren and his sibling are out stumbling from one tree branch to the
next, but find themselves on the ground, which is a dangerous no-man’s
land for owls. Within no time
both brothers are owl-napped by a vindictive owl cult called the “Pure
Ones” that is lead by a their equally malicious queen, Nyra (a terrific
Helen Mirren). The Pure Ones
take all owls they feel are beneath them and then place them into slave
camps where prospective soldiers are segregated from menial pickers, the
latter that are forced to pick up and sort through vomited up owl pellets
(yuck!). The rest of the
hypnotized slave labor is being used to help assemble a doomsday weapon
with powerful metal flecks (still trying to figure that one out) that will
destroy all owls not belonging to the Pure Ones (Death Star, anyone?).
believes that he must take it upon himself to escape and seek out the
Guardians of Ga’hoole – if they really exist – to end the Queen’s
tyranny once and for all. Unfortunately
for him, Kludd has fallen to the dark side of the gizzard and has joined
the ranks of the Pure Ones. With
the assistance of his new pals Gylfie (Emily Barclay), Twilight (Anthony
LaPaglia) and Digger (David Wenham), Soren does manage to find his hero
and savior in the form of Ezylryb (the great and commanding Geoffrey
Rush), an elderly and experienced Guardian that will teach Soren the ways
of the Force…dang it, I mean gizzard…to confront the Queen and save
the slaves. To round off the
STAR WARS comparisons even further, Ezylryb also must have a final
confrontation with his arch nemesis, Metalbeak, an owl with a Darth Vader-like mask that hides his scarred and charred face.
OF THE GUARDIANS, as stated, is an auditory/visual nirvana in the manner
that Snyder and company creates a painstaking eye for painterly detail
with the images on screen. The
owls themselves are hypnotically realistic and nuanced in all of their
feathered grandeur, although I will confess that, at times, it was
decidedly difficult to distinguish one from the other, especially during
the battle scenes. Scenes of
flight – which make superlative use of 3D, much like HOW
TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON did earlier this year – are thoroughly
engaging and magical, and when the film is not wowing us with eye-gasmic
moments like that, we even have intense and surprisingly violent (at least
for a PG-rated animated film) battle scenes with all of those cute and
adorable owls sporting razor sharp metal talons on top of their natural
ones while wearing ornate helmets in scenes of wanton
owl-on-owl mayhem that are eerily like the ones Snyder orchestrated in 300,
albeit with no human Spartan warriors. The
film certainly develops a pulse during these rousing and spectacularly
realized battles, but I believe that they may be a bit too extreme and
graphic for young viewers.
does populate the film with an exemplary voice cast, to be sure, whom all
lend a great deal of solemn gravitas to the proceedings (Hugo Weaving,
Helen Mirren, and Geoffrey Rush in particular make the film feel that much
more regal) and the themes that the film contains – faith, family
loyalty, betrayal, and sacrificing oneself for the greater good of all –
are decent ones for young viewers. Moreover,
LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS is one of those exceedingly rare breed of
entertainments that makes appropriate usage of 3D technology to subtly suggest a third dimension without engaging in
distracting and gimmicky overkill. There is a moment involving a slow-motion montage of Soren
soaring and gliding through a fierce rain storm as part of his training to
fly that is ethereally beautiful with the added dimensionality, which is
hardly a descriptor I have used before to describe 3D films, which usually
are the product of hasty and lackluster upconversions.
LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS is a 3D effort that rightfully deserves the extra
surcharge to see it beyond a 2D presentation.
Yet, again I must lament that LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS did not stir the soul as much as it wowed the eyes. Too much of the film’s look and story threads seems lifted from Tolkien and Lucas, not to mention that those unfamiliar with the source material might need to jot down notes to makes sense of the hard-to-pronounce character names and their dynamics and relationships at first. Snyder should be given points for daring to do something unequivocally different after films like 300 and WATCHMEN, and as a self-professed comic book and fantasy geek as well as a visual auteur, he is more than equal to the task of forging a lusciously mounted and strikingly executed animated film. LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS is pure escapism in terms of it transfixing our eyes at the screen for an hour and a half in a state of childlike awe and wonder, but beyond that we are dealt with imitative ideas and a tedious story that just lacks the same sensation of transcending appeal.