From The Parallax Review Vaults: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole was for the “In Theatres” section of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

It would be easy to get lost in the handsome animation that brings to life the characters of Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. The details are so sharply designed and beautifully executed, the film could have coasted through its largely derivative story without adding any wrinkles or subtlety and I probably would have written a decent review that focused on the impressive technical accomplishments of the film. Fortunately, even with a story that was derivative when George Lucas used it to create Star Wars almost 35 years ago, the film’s creaky plot and familiar characters slowly come to life during the second act in time for a surprisingly rousing climax.

The film follows Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess), a young owl who hasn’t even learned to fly properly when he and his brother Kludd (voiced by Ryan Kwanten) are kidnapped an army of evil owls that refer to themselves as Pure Ones. These Pure Ones are kidnapping young owls to either brainwash them into becoming soldiers or to be slaves forced to help create a super-weapon. While Kludd becomes a powerful soldier, the tenderhearted Soren escapes with another kidnapped owl named Gylfie (voiced by Emily Barclay). Together, they seek to find the mythical Guardians of Ga’Hoole, a society of owls who have pledged to protect the weak and stop the Pure Ones and their frightening leader, Metalbeak (voiced by Joel Edgerton).

The story may be rote, but director Zack Snyder infuses it with enough heart and style to make the audience care about the outcome. Unlike most animated films, it aims at a slightly older child crowd. This gives it a bit more freedom to go to darker places than expected. Characters are killed and plot twists, while obvious, still feel dangerous because the stakes are raised by the potential of violent death for our heroes.

Speaking of violent deaths, With Snyder at the helm, it’s no wonder that the battle scenes that form the film’s climax are so exciting and stylistically satisfying. While Snyder uses a similar bag of tricks that he employed with 300 and Watchmen to create these sequences (I’m assuming this is a record for the number of slow motion animated owls used in a film), for maybe the first time in his career, he has managed to make the characters relatable enough that their fates are worth caring about. This added emotional investment makes the battle scenes feel much more shocking and violent than they actually are.

While the script fails to come up with an original story, it does move quickly, supplying just enough information and character detail that the audience is able to easily fill in the blanks. This lack of exposition is fairly refreshing, leaving more time for the heroic characters to become more endearing as they face the danger coming their way.

Helping along these moments that border on actual character development is the amazing work of the animators who bring the owls to life. They keep the owls looking just artificial enough to buy into the elaborate facial expressions used to give them distinguishing characteristics. But everything that surrounds them, from the armor they wear to the burning forests and ominous caves through which they travel, is presented in a style that is nearly photo-realistic. The design and execution of the characters and their environment is stunning. Wrapping it in a warm light that adds to the fairy-tale atmosphere and making effective use (for once) of the 3D format, the technicians behind the animation deserve a huge amount of credit.

What is frustrating about the movie is the fact that Snyder did not have the guts to make it a stand-alone film. While it’s obvious halfway through that the film is intended as a franchise-starter, it doesn’t make it any less of a letdown to find an ending that ploddingly sets the stage for a sequel instead of providing an actual resolution. This always leaves a bad taste in my mouth, even when most everything that led to the ending was fairly well done.

Despite my complaints about the ending and a first act that takes a while to get moving, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole is a superior piece of entertainment for slightly older children that can handle the weightier themes of mortality and the price of war. Even better, it should keep their parents entertained, as well. That’s rare enough to deserve a look.

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