Can they really produce an epic fantasy featuring owls? I was amazed that the answer is a resounding Yes. There were so many things that turned me off watching this movie (and I think a lot of people are in the same prejudicial boat). First, the title is ridiculously impossible to say without quizzical looks: The Guardians of Ga’Hoole. It just sounds odd even in my head–not something that I’d be rushing to the theatre for. (They tried to fix that a bit by focusing on the first part, calling it “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” — not the biggest help. Then there’s the fact that (I’ll say it again) the movie is about owls. I guess in reality owls are very human-like, standing almost upright, with round faces that can approximate human expressions. However, they just aren’t very cool. That’s why no one ever features them in movies.
Nevertheless, once you get past all that, this movie is a visually breathtaking experience and an enjoyable epic adventure for the young and young-at-heart. What starts out as a bedtime story for a young owlet named Soren and his siblings eventually becomes a quest. Night after night he and his sister pretend to be the Guardians of Ga’Hoole — legendary defenders of good, and warriors of a famous battle. One night Soren and his brother Kludd are abducted by some strange owls and taken to a place where Soren is forced to work as a slave. Kludd is drafted to join a young army known as The Pure Ones (the Nazi parallels are pretty blatant). After eventually escaping, Soren leads a rag-tag band to seek out the Guardians, so they can save all the owlets from slavery and stop the evil owls and their plans.
I confess there’s no way to write a synopsis of this movie without it sounding kind of silly (and some of the dialogue is a bit laughable). However, the amazing visuals will easily banish away smirks or giggles. First, the owls are very well animated. They look super realistic (down to the feathers), and even manage to show some human mannerisms. Plus, you can actually tell the owls apart (which is a huge plus for any story with only non-human characters). Second, when the owls take flight or attack, the movements and the backgrounds, the slow motion, etc., all look incredible. There’s one scene where Soren learns to fly into the eye of a thunderstorm. The raindrops not only whip through the air as he’s speeds through, but when the slow motion kicks in, every single droplet can be clearly seen swirling around his body. It’s quite awesome. (If there’s anyone who knows how to use slo-mo, it’s 300 and Watchmen director Zack Snyder.)
The story itself is based on a novel, but it’s a pretty typical fantasy adventure story. Young Soren must keep faith in himself and in the Guardians to triumph over evil. There’s also a classic Cain and Abel conflict between him and Kludd, who joins the dark side. The story is set in Australia, so the voice cast represents some of Downunda’s best (combined oddly with some of Britain’s best as well). Jim Sturgess, who is British but affects an Australian accent, plays Soren. Kludd is voiced by True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten (sounding ironically less recognizable with his native Aussie accent than his adopted Louisiana twang). Other voices include Sam Neill, Geoffrey Rush, and Anthony LaPaglia, with Helen Mirren as the beautiful wicked queen (she keeps her British accent — better for the cold aloofness, I guess).
Snyder has produced something wonderful in this movie, and proves himself as a skilled adapter of the large scale story. I put Snyder on my list of directors to watch now. I’m looking forward to his much more grown up feature, Sucker Punch, coming out next March, but I hope he’ll do more epic fantasy. How about picking up my favourite: Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time? If you see this movie for the visuals alone, it’s worth it. I think it deserves to be recognized as this year’s Avatar in terms of pushing the envelope of what stunning imagery can be brought to the big screen (and I definitely hope it’ll be nominated in the Best Animated category come Oscar time). The story is not the most original, but considering this is a movie about a bunch of owls, it’s both impressive and entertaining. (4.5 out of 5)