For its rapturous imagery and mythical sensibilities, director Zack Snyder’s “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” aspires to something akin to “Avatar” or the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. In fact, the attention to texture and detail that Snyder and his team have invested in depicting everything from the film’s painterly landscapes to every individual feather of its largely avian cast is downright impressive. Rendered in 3D, “Guardians” can often be a breathtaking experience approximating James Cameron’s work in his above-mentioned saga.
Writers John Orloff and Emil Stern adapt Kathryn Lasky’s popular children novels about two warring kingdoms of owls – the noble Guardians and the evil Pure Ones. From the looks of it, Orloff and Stern do their best with an overload of characters, numerous by-plays, back-story and incident, but, finally, the job of condensing the full scope of a novel into a 90-minute fantasy flick asks both too much of the form and of the audience.
“Guardians” follows two plucky young barn owl-brothers, Soren (Jim Sturgees) and Kludd (Ryan Kwanten), who find themselves on opposite sides in the story’s mythic clash of owls. While testing their fledgling wings, Soren and Kludd are captured by agents of the Pure Ones and whisked off to their nefarious stronghold. Rather than be added to the Pure Ones’ legion of brainwashed soldiers, Soren escapes the clutches of its leader, Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton) while Kludd – always jealous of Soren’s flying abilities – vows allegiance to Metal Beak and his queen, Nyra (Helen Mirren).
Soren, meanwhile, teams up with the tiny but intrepid Gylfie (Emily Barclay) and the buffoonish but well-meaning pair, Digger (David Wenham) and Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia). Together, they seek out the storied Guardians and warn them of the Pure Ones’ imminent invasion, and of Metal Beak’s vaguely explained ploy that involves bats and unleashing the destructive energies harnessed from a rare metal. Deception in the Guardians’ ranks and an obligatory final act beak-and-talon throw-down round out a script that packs in far too many emotional and expository beats for anyone unfamiliar with the source material, frankly, to care.
A game cast featuring established thespians like Mirren, LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, Hugo Weaving together with newer talents like Joel Edgerton and Ryan Kwanten all manage to breath dramatic fire and a sincere gravity to the proceedings. That added to the story’s inherent sense of fantasy, and its genuinely felt moments of exhilaration (as when Soren discovers his perceptive gifts) and of danger (as when the “Guardians’” scrappy heroes struggle to fly through a dangerous ocean storm) keep us engaged – for a time, at least.
But one question I kept coming back to was, “Who’s this movie made for?” It’s too violent and scary for very young children. And I wouldn’t expect tweens and teens to be jonsing for a fantasy adventure about owls. For older crowds, the movie doesn’t have rich enough story and character development – though it teases with potential in both – to make the material truly involving. That leaves the fans of Lasky’s books, but they too might be turned off by Snyder’s rushed, fevered telling. “Guardians” may be trying to please all the above equally with the end result that everyone leaves the theater feeling a bit gypped.
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Written by: John Orloff, Emil Stern
Cast: Jim Sturgess (voice), Emily Barclay (voice), Abbie Cornish (voice), Hugo Weaving (voice), Geoffrey Rush (voice), Helen Mirren (voice), Joel Edgerton (voice), Sam Neill (voice), Ryan Kwanten (voice), Anthony LaPaglia (voice), David Wenham (voice)