Thursday, September 23, 2010
Review: "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole"
I don't know what the thing is with long movie titles these days. I think it started with the first "Pirates of the Caribbean," which wasn't content to just be inspired by a theme park ride, it had to have "The Curse of the Black Pearl," too. Or maybe it was the "Harry Potter" flicks with their endless extensions.
Now we have a children's fantasy book the with the pleasant-enough title of "Guardians of Ga'Hoole" that has somehow become a movie with the tongue-tripping moniker, "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole." This at least cues us in that it's about owls, and was made by the same animation studio behind the "Happy Feet" flicks.
Perhaps befitting the mythology surround owls, the film's denizens are much prouder than dancing penguins. The Guardians wear helmets and wield little swords or metal extensions on their claws into battle.
The movie, based on a series of 15 (!) books by Kathryn Lasky, is quite derivative, transplanting the familiar tropes of the fantasy genre onto owls. There's the young dreamer plucked out of obscurity for a vast adventure in faraway lands, with supernatural forces at work, a gathering cloud of evil, and the forces of light holding it at bay.
At one point, an older owl urges his young protégé to "Use your gizzard!", and we can practically hear the echo of Ben Kenobi instructing Luke about the Force.
I should point out this film was directed by Zack Snyder, whose previous movies were R-rated, ultra-violent flicks: "Dawn of the Dead," "300" and "Watchmen." Jumping into PG-rated animated fare for kiddies seems an unlikely career move for him.
Still, I liked the movie well enough to endorse it for smaller children. The animation is terrific, with the characters managing to have distinctive anthropomorphic personalities while remaining quite owl-like in their appearance and mannerisms.
And for once, the 3D effects don't look like they were slapped on as an afterthought.
Soren (voice by Jim Sturgess) is a young owlet just learning to fly along with his brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten). One day they're bird-napped by some warriors and recruited into the Ice Claws, the band of owls led by Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton), who wears a sinister mask over his ravaged face. He and his mate Nyra (Helen Mirren) are committed to the racial supremacy of the larger, stronger owl breeds.
Soren grew up listening to the stories of his father (Hugo Weaving) about the Guardians, the fabled protectors of the owl kingdoms, and especially the great warrior Lyze of Kiel. He thought it was just lore, but since their ancient enemies are real, perhaps the Guardians are, too.
He escapes with Gylfie (Emily Barclay), a small elf owl, but not Kludd, who chooses to remain among The Pure Ones, as Nyra dubs her promising young recruits. They pick up companions along the way, including an immense owl who likes to sing and another named Digger who, well, digs.
Eventually they make their way to the secret island of Ga'Hoole where the Guardians reside, setting up the big showdown with Metal Beak and his flock. Ezylryb, a scarred little screech owl (Geoffrey Rush) who is the local historian, instructs Soren how to fly in extreme circumstances, and offers some sobering lessons about mythologizing war.
The film contains all sorts of strange elements that don't quite mesh. There's a subplot about the Pure Ones gatherings flecks of magical metal from "pellets" -- the fur and bones of digested rodents spit up by the owls. For some reason Soren's family has a snake as a nursemaid. And Metal Beak keeps his slaves in line through "moon-blinking," hypnotizing them by making them sleep at night, or something.
Despite its inflated title, "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole" feels like an epic tale crammed down to kiddie-movie size.
2.5 stars out of four