Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (Film Review)
3 out of 4 stars
For those seeking a relief from the winter season’s heavy drama, director Zack Snyder’s first foray into animation should easily fulfil their wish. With its frenetic action, dazzling effects, and masterful direction, ‘Legend of the Guardians’ consistently entertains from start to finish, even if it’s the weakest of 2010’s animated films. Hopefully, Synder will build on his experience here and reach greater heights with his next family outing.
‘Legend of the Guardians’ tells the story of a young barn owl called Soren (Jim Sturgess), who dreams of learning to fly and joining the ranks of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole, the legendary defenders of the owl kingdom.
However, Soren’s courage will be put to the test when he and his brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) are abducted by a group of owls led by Metalhawk (Joel Edgerton), a cruel tyrant intent on enslaving the entire owl population.
With the help of fellow companions Grimble (Hugo Weaving), Gylfie (Emily Barclay), and Allomere (Sam Neill), Soren must escape from Metalhawk’s grasp and become the soldier he always dreamed of in the process.
If there’s a damning flaw in the production, it’s the film’s clichéd and largely unengaging story. Both in its structure and plot, the film almost resembles an animated remake of ‘Lord of the Rings’, only with talking owls substituting for hobbits and elves. Some of the most obvious cases of this include Metalhawk’s satanic armour, the Mordor-like volcano lair of his army, and the Shire-like ease of the barn owl kingdom. Indeed, it’s surprising Peter Jackson didn’t sue Warner Bros. for copyright infringement.
As well as being unoriginal, the story is also painfully complex, enough to irritate sizeable portions of the audience. Almost every five minutes, a new character is haphazardly introduced, making it difficult to form genuine emotional bonds with any of the owls. Similarly, the rapid location changes also work against the film’s narrative, disorienting the viewer even further. Looking at its disjointed plot, it’s easy to see that basing the film’s screenplay on three separate children’s novels was clearly a poor decision on the part of its writers.
In turn, this leads to another of the film’s major flaws: its near total lack of drama and character development. None of the owls except for Soren have any social dialogue at all except for puns and gags, with the lines being limited to banal exposition such as ‘this way to the Guardians’ and ‘the Pure Ones are approaching!’. Arguably, Zack Snyder would have been better advised to remove the owls’ power of speech altogether. Likewise, the emotional implications of Soren’s conflict with his father and brother are also ignored by the script, which uses them simply to shoehorn extra action scenes into the film. When compared with the heartfelt drama of ‘Toy Story 3’ and ‘How to Train Your Dragon’, it’s hard not to feel disappointed by the film’s emotional vacuum.
For all its narrative flaws however, ‘Guardians’ is still an undeniable visual treat. Whether it’s the dazzling aerial battles, the stunning landscapes of fiery-red volcanoes and icy-blue glaciers, or even the amusing facial expressions of Soren and his owl brethren, the film literally transports the viewer into the midst of the action thanks to its groundbreaking cinematography. Once again, ‘Guardians’ visual marvels stand as solid proof of 3-D as the medium of choice for premium effects-driven pictures.
Of course, with the director of ‘Watchmen’ and ‘300’ behind the camera, it comes as no surprise that the film’s action is also nothing short of exceptional. Easily rivalling live action pictures such as ‘Salt’ and ‘The Expendables’ in terms of sheer suspense and spectacle, ‘Guardians’ is filled with truly jaw-dropping battles and aerial scenes which would fit just as perfectly in ‘Gladiator’ or ‘Star Wars’. Two particular highlights of the film include the final epic assault on Metalhawk’s volcano lair and Soren’s vertigo-inducing flight through an ocean cyclone, which leave the audiences at the edge of their seats thanks to Synder ‘s frantic direction and the immersive 3-D effects. In fact, it’s debatable whether the movie would be better classified as a straightforward action/adventure film rather than a family picture, considering its visceral intensity.
Additionally, ‘Guardians’ also has a sense of humour to complement its thrills and liven up its mediocre story. When not spouting military commands or revealing third-rate plot twists, characters such as Hugo Weaving’s Grimble and David Wenham’s Digger actually have a surprisingly witty array of quips at their disposal, bringing a sense of mirth and light-heartedness to the film’s proceedings. Similarly, the rest of the mostly Australian cast also brings enthusiasm aplenty to their roles, even if many have little more than cameos in the final cut.
And of course, credit must be given to the band Owl City for the film’s infectious title theme ‘To the Sky’. A shamelessly sugar-coated pop rock anthem, the theme works unexpectedly well in the context of the film, and should further brighten the moods of audiences as they leave the theatres.
On more than one level, ‘Guardians’ recalls ‘Alice in Wonderland’, another fantasy epic with a story that failed to match the intrigue of its lavish effects. Unlike that film though, ‘Guardians’ boasts flashes of genuine inspiration in its visuals and set pieces, and manages to be consistently thrilling and fun. It may not be legendary, but ‘Guardians’ is still solid family entertainment from start to finish.
‘Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole’ is currently playing in Hong Kong.