I'm not entirely sure if children needed their own 'Lord of the Rings' franchise, much less one starring owls, but now they have both. 'Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole' is director Zack Snyder's adaptation of the first three books in Kathryn Lasky's acclaimed series of 'Guardians of Ga'Hoole' novels, but with the exception that it's owls and not hobbits who populate its fantastic universe. Snyder's film follows a trajectory similar to that in Peter Jackson's trilogy by focusing on untested dreamers who make a perilous journey over unforgiving terrain in order to rescue themselves and their families from death or enslavement. But what's more remarkable about the film is that its familiarity, to kids and adults alike, is not at all a bad thing.
Snyder, a surprising director commercially (if a perfect one creatively) for material like this, expertly adapts his muscular visual style to the demands of a world filled with warring (if family-friendly) owls, adding another artistic victory with 'Legend of the Guardians' to his already impressive track record.
Jim Sturgess ('21') provides the voice of Soren, a young Tyto owl who is beginning to learn how to fly, fueled by stories of the mythical Guardians from his father Noctus (Hugo Weaving) and a healthy sense of competition with his brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten). When Soren and Kludd are kidnapped by minions of Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton) and his queen, Nyra (Helen Mirren), the two of them are separated and subjected to imprisonment. Kludd throws in with Nyra's fledgling army, but Soren escapes with the help of an elf owl named Gylfie (Emily Barclay), and the two of them embark on an epic journey to find the Guardians in the hopes that they will be able to defeat Metal Beak and then rescue their friends and family from his oppressive rule.
Somewhat awesomely, this really only describes the first 40 percent or so of the story of 'Legend of the Guardians,' and even if all of that sounds narratively familiar, the execution is unlike almost anything you've ever seen before. Rather than anthropomorphizing the owls to give them more humanlike reactions or physical attributes, Snyder protectively maintains the integrity and authenticity of owl physiology – or at least 90 percent of it – and makes them beautiful, graceful, agile creatures whose only human qualities are their personalities.
Animal Logic, the production company that animated the equally-accurate penguins of 'Happy Feet,' renders every feather and movement with so much meticulous detail that the only way to improve upon it would be to use a high-speed telephoto lens to shoot real owls in their actual habitat. But then, of course, it seems doubtful they would be able to do stuff like battle with one another, at least not with the ferocity that they do here. This is one film that presents its battle sequences with style, but not escapist glamour; notwithstanding the speech that explains how one owl collected his many disfigurements on the battlefield, even the off screen action doesn't hesitate to suggest that these owls are definitely trying to kill one another.
(Speaking of which, I do think some parts of the film are probably a little too intense for younger viewers: the chase sequences and action set pieces are themselves markedly more aggressive than most family fare, but further, owls are beaten, tortured, defaced and decapitated, although via mostly implied rather than explicit violence.)
That said, the film does capture a genuine, captivating sense of wonder, and maintains a propulsive, sweeping momentum that keeps the story from drowning in the "epic movie" conventions that might otherwise make 'Legend of the Guardians' feel too familiar or forced. Snyder's direction helps significantly in this regard; while his visual style sometimes seems to be a little light on substance, he maximizes the dramatic impact of the moments that need to be emphasized. Shots of owls moving in slow motion through rainstorms are definitely awe-inspiring, but Snyder makes sure that the flourishes serve the story rather than distract from or overshadow it. Moreover, he keeps the rest of the proceedings moving at a brisk enough pace that the story carries weight, but you don't feel like you're just waiting for the next "significant" moment.
In fact, so effective is the film's conception of a fantasy world that it evokes the backdrops of franchises audiences have loved in the past – in all of the right ways – that it's not merely a stopgap between Jackson's first three films and the long-delayed 'The Hobbit.' Rather, it's a worthy replacement for that series' gargantuan adventure, albeit presented in a way that makes it possible for older siblings and parents to bring their pre-teens along without scarring them for life. Meanwhile, if there's any hesitation to see the film because it appears stranded in that "non-Pixar animated film" ghetto, rest assured that it not only lives up to some of the best of what they've offered, but feels (and looks) less like a CGI opus than a live-action one that just happens to focus more on owls than humans. And best of all, it's because you care about the characters just like you would if they were actually alive – much less human.
Although it shares the most in common with Snyder's '300,' this film uses a mythic narrative less to depict blood-soaked badassery than to introduce younger viewers to the sorts of tales that were told to them by their parents, and which they'll eventually tell (or show) to their own kids. In which case, 'Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole' doesn't raze or redefine epic adventure as we currently know it – but then again, it doesn't need to, because it rediscovers, and more than that, revives the underlying archetypes and emotions that make this sort of storytelling such a timeless source of entertainment and inspiration. Whether or not we need to see it embodied and acted out by owls is debatable, but the choice to do so only reinforces how universal its story truly is, and it provides a legitimacy to the argument that 'Guardians' is indeed, well, legendary.