With the voices of Jim Sturgess, Helen Mirren, Geoffrey Rush, Sam Neill, Anthony LaPaglia. Directed by Zack Snyder. Rated PG for some sequences of scary action. 91 minutes.
LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA’HOOLE has a clumsy and awkward title to go with its clumsy and awkward script. Based on several books by Kathryn Lasky, something seems to have gotten lost in mushing them all up into a single story. This is a movie in which the overall story arc is pedestrian, but the details are so complicated as to nearly defy description.
Young viewers may enjoy the 3D animation of owls in flight, but they are likely to quickly lose interest in a complex story that’s so convoluted that you may feel a need to take notes. Soren (voice of Jim Sturgess) is a young owlet who, along with his brother, is kidnapped by a group of bad owls who consider themselves “pure bred.” Their goal is to turn the kidnapped young owls into soldiers or, if they’re not suitable, into slaves.
The owls are turned into slaves by staring at the moon. Why? It’s not clear. But these slaves are now “pickers” and what they do is go through the “nuggets” spit up by the owls of the undigested parts of their prey looking for metal slivers. The slivers are collected to produce some kind of emanation that incapacitates owls. Why? Who knows? Is it radiation? Magnetism? Funny squiggly lines?
Soren escapes the bad owls and seeks out the legendary Guardians, not even sure if they’re for real. They are, and the rest of the movie is about the impending battle between good and evil, the showdown between Soren and his brother, and viewers attempting to keep all the owls straight. Other than cheering the good owls and booing the bad, owls it’s almost impossible to figure out what’s going on.
The unnecessary 3D aside – and please, please, please do not waste money paying extra just to see the owls in flight – the animation is actually quite impressive. The details of feathers and wings makes the owls look realistic which causes two problems which the filmmakers might not have anticipated. First, realistic looking owls have a rather limited range of expression, which makes it hard to connect with the characters. Second, if they’re going through the bother of making them look real, why then make them totally unreal by dressing them in absurd battle armor?
And that’s the problem. There’s no way to get into the story because we’re looking at owls, who are hard to keep straight even if they vary in size and markings. Once you scrape away the details about owlish purity and metal shavings, this is yet another story about a young character who has to prove himself in battle, eventually triumphing over the forces of evil. Since we never really care about the character, it’s hard to get too worked up over his adventures.
It’s equally hard to imagine who the young viewers are who are supposed to respond to “Legend Of The Guardians.” “Owls are cool” may suffice for a little while, especially during the flying scene, but eventually they’re going to realize they have no idea what’s going on, or what the fighting between the “good” and “bad” owls is all about. For all the care that obviously went into the look of the film, it’s a pity they couldn’t expend a little more effort into telling a coherent story.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.