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Friday, Sept. 24, 2010

'Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole'

Who gives a hoot about making sense?

A few months back I was at a screening when the first preview for this fall's big animated fantasy, "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole," was shown. With its portentous baritone narration ("Legend tells of a band of warriors . . . "), heroic attempts to lip-synch bird beaks to human dialogue, fist-pumping scenes of slow-motion battle between strangely synthetic-looking owls (wearing helmets, no less), all set to an overdone emo anthem by 30 Seconds To Mars, it looked like this was going to be "300" with birds, the best genre parody since "Team America."

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole Rating: (1 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Best left in the dark: Heroic owl Soren takes flight in, or from, "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole." © 2010 VILLAGE ROADSHOW FILMS (BVI ) LIMITED

Director: Zack Snyder
Running time: 87 minutes
Language: English
Opens Oct. 1, 2010
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Wrong. It turns out that "Legend of the Guardians" is entirely serious, and it is actually directed by the "300" man himself, Zack Snyder. But when your totally earnest fantasy epic comes off looking like self-parody, you just might have a problem. (And even as I type this, I can already hear the Internet-fanboy contingent having a collective meltdown.)

Based on the children's fantasy novels by Kathryn Lasky, "Legend of the Guardians" is set in a world of owls. I wouldn't say in the realm of nature, because aside from a group of bats and a couple of mice, the only living creatures in this story are owls; other birds and animals are conspicuously absent, never mind humans.

The film's story is yet another heroic quest where our champion will have to triumph in an epic battle between good and evil. Young owl Soren and his brother Kludd (voiced by Jim Sturgess and Ryan Kwanten, respectively) fall from their treetop home while learning to fly and are abducted by a gang of evil slave-driving owls, who put them to work in a mine run by an avian warlord known as Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton). Kludd agrees to cooperate and become a brainwashed warrior for Metal Beak, while Soren resists and is put to work gathering strange metal "flecks" from owl droppings, which harbor some sort of unspecified magical energy that the bad guys seek to weaponize.

Soren eventually flees with a tiny owl named Gylfie (Emily Barclay), and after meeting the blustery Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia) and hyperactive Digger (David Wenham) en route, this small fellowship set off to find the mythical Guardians, a group of warrior owls sworn to vanquish evil. This all leads to a climactic showdown, which Snyder shoots in his trademark "300" style, complete with ethnic female vocal laments (ripped from "Gladiator," "Battlestar Galactica" et al) and a sudden shift to slow-motion at the moment of impact as combat commences.

Unfortunately, it all comes off as more than a little ridiculous. First off, there's something about the film's animation style — photo-realistic but in that plasticy, simulacrum-looking style of "Beowulf" — that just doesn't work. The more abstracted something is, the easier it is to suspend disbelief, while the closer one tries to achieve lifelike representation through synthetic means, the more obvious the shortcomings are. Hollywood claims to understand this, which is why filmmakers are always extolling their use of actual orchestras instead of cheaper soft-synth solutions, but the animation in films like this proves some people just don't get it.

Then there's the whole idea of basically doing Tolkien — yet again, groan — with birds. It's interesting to compare with an earlier animated animal drama such as "Watership Down." Yes, it had talking rabbits, but they faced real rabbity dangers like dogs, cars, hunters and, um, owls. The natural relationship of predator and prey was enough to provide all the drama the story needed. But in our age of dumbed-down comic book/video game hyperbole, it's not enough unless you have your animal kingdom protagonists forming evil empires, wearing battle armor and steel talons, and creating magical weapons. Owl blacksmiths: WTF?

And stealing your entire climax from "Star Wars" doesn't help. One and all will recall the classic scene where Luke Skywalker pilots his X-wing fighter into the Death Star's narrow trench and fires a missile right into its one weak point as the disembodied voice of Obi Wan Kenobi tells him to "Use the force, Luke." Snyder's film — spoiler alert! — has Soren fly through a similarly labyrinthine route and launch a flaming missile through a small portal to take out Metal Beak's death-ray contraption, as the voice of a wise Jedi-like owl echoes in his head: "Trust your gizzard, boy." Words fail to describe exactly how lame this is.

Finally, there's the whole question of what Snyder, as director, wants to say. Metal Head's slaver owls are portrayed as a bunch of evil fascists, grunting lines such as "The strong shall rule the weak." This is basically the same philosophy as the militaristic Spartans Snyder lionized just one film ago in "300," whose entire society was based on a military elite supported by slaves. This leads one to believe that Snyder is either a) bipolar, or b) completely indifferent to whatever the film may be saying as long as he can put plenty of digital effects up there. Take your pick.

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