Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (2010)

It can be a great distraction to have read the book when you see a movie adaptation, and I don't often do it. But the youngster and I have read Kathryn Lasky's fine Guardians of Ga'Hoole: The Capture, the first book in a 15 volume series about an heroic young barn owl named Soren. The first three books have been adapted into the animated movie Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole. The movie is sufficiently different from the books that it's best judged on its own terms -- the characters have the same names, but the story is stripped of much of its psychological depth and horror, to make for a zippier, streamlined adventure movie that ends with an epic, violent battle. The first book is dark and bleak, but hopeful, with a sophisticated socio-political theme. The tone of the movie is quite different. It is still frequently dark and menacing, but considerably simpler, and the timeline far shorter, so as to pack three book's worth of story into a 90 minute film.

Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess) is a young barn owlet who lives with his parents, his older brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten), and his adorable fluffball of a baby sister Eglantine (Adrienne DeFaria). One day, Soren and Kludd fall from the family's tree, and are kidnapped by patrols from St. Aegolius Academy for Orphaned Owls. They're taken to a barren canyon, where they and hundreds of owlets of many species are held captive and "moon-blinked," a form of brainwashing, and forced to work. St. Aggie's is a concentration camp for the Pure Ones, evil owls with a delusions of superiority bent on destroying all the inferior owl kingdoms. Kludd sides with his captors, but Soren and a tiny Elf owl named Gylfie (Emily Barclay) escape and seek help from the legendary Guardians, a mythical band of noble protector owls said to live in a vast Ga'Hoole tree. Their traveling companions are a snooty, singing grey owl named Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia), and goofy burrowing owl Digger (David Wenham). Kids who like knock-knock jokes will think Digger's a hoot.

Legend of the Guardians is beautifully and vibrantly animated, and creates a really nice, immersive, bird's-eye-view sense of flight with its effective use of 3-D. The characters (most with Australian accents and mostly voiced by Aussie actors) are nicely expressive, although they've got more visual depth than psychological depth. Excellent CG animation is the rule rather than the exception these days, so the visual quality of the movie alone is not enough to recommend it. On the other hand, the CG *Roadrunner* cartoon short that precedes the movie is pretty comprehensively lousy and artistically pointless. It looks like a poorly rendered video game. (I've never been a fan of that pesky bird anyway.) 

Director Zack Snyder has a strong and original visual style, as demonstrated in 300 and Watchmen (although both of those movies, which blended live actors and CG, looked a lot better than they were, taken as a whole). Legend of the Guardians is Snyder's first fully animated movie, and it exhibits some of the director's stylistic flourishes, including ample use of slow motion, and an emphasis on bold action over conceptual or symbolic content. The story as told in Legend of the Guardians moves briskly, motivated more by plot than ideas -- older and more sophisticated youngsters with a sense of history might appreciate the political subtext, but it is not particularly prominent or important in the progress of the story, so younger viewers will have no trouble keeping up, and will be charmed by the heroic characters and funny sidekicks. The movie doesn't particularly dwell on the emotional impact of the rather distressing developments in Soren's young life, and regularly lightens things up with humorous interludes. The drawn-out climax, however, while not visibly bloody, is violent enough to warrant parental caution.

26Sep 2010