Who says Zach Snyder can’t make a family picture? After “Sin City” and “300,” I had my doubts, but “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” is not only a visual masterpiece Snyder-style – complete with slow motion – but it’s also a classic tale of good versus evil, told with stunning animation of epic proportions.
“Legend of the Guardians” follows Soren (Jim Sturgess), a young owl obsessed with stories of “the Guardians,” a clan of warrior owls who protect the weak from an evil army called the Pure Ones. When Soren and his brother, Kludd (Ryan Kwanten), are kidnapped by these Pure Ones, the stories become reality. Soren escapes and hunts for the Guardians to save the owl kingdom from the Pure Ones, while Kludd slowly becomes one.
What sets “Legend” apart from other animated films is the scale, style and attention to detail. Director Zack Snyder creates a boundary-less world with expansive deserts, gloomy mountains, trees of mythic size, giving realistic landscapes an ancient, legendary feel. Where animated “Beowolf” and “A Christmas Carol” still look mildly mechanical and fake, and films like “Shrek,” “How to Train you Dragon” and “Toy Story” all maintain an animated style, “Legend of the Guardians” strives for realism (aside from the obvious: owls in armor) through its details – feathers are ruffled, armor is rusted and nothing is entirely perfect.
The film is based on the first three novels of Kathryn Lasky’s series and was adapted by screenwriters Kathryn Lasky’s and Emil Stern. Cramming three books into one film cut the story down to a very basic plot, making it a classic “coming of age” tale about a young protagonist searching for his place in the world. That’s a pretty generic story, though the owls are new. Additionally, the Pure Ones are enslaving other owls to “mine” for a strange rock that traps owls in a force field. Weird and far-fetched, dark and a bit confusing, this “evil plot” feels out of place in an ancient epic.
While the plot teeters, the message soars. Good and evil are clearly defined. The Guardians live by a code, ready to “arise from the mist to defend the weak and vanquish the evil.” The Pure Ones believe that the strong must rule the week, while the Guardians fight to protect the weak.
Soren is an owl that flies by faith and not by sight. He sets out on a journey to find the Guardians, without proof that they exist. “Words were the only proof I’ve ever had that the Guardians were real, and still I believed,” he says when he meets them. Not the average movie message, but a refreshing one.
Another great message comes from Soren’s hero, a Guardian named Ezylryb (Geoffrey Rush) who saved the owl kingdom long ago. Ezylryb tells him that a hero is someone who merely does what is right, again and again.
“Legend” stars the vocal talents of Helen Mirren, Rush, Hugo Weaving, Sturgess, Kwanten and Emily Barclay, a cast that delivers. Even some of the minor characters that serve simply as comic relief are brilliantly animated with vocals to match.
Given the beauty, the youth-oriented story, the strong cast, generally solid script and good morals, I’d still recommend that parents use discretion before taking their kids. This is a Zach Snyder film, and the violence, though stylized, is still pretty strong. Owls swoop in for assassin-style killings, or viciously battle in mid-air with steel-plated talons and daggers.
That aside, it’s a great film for kids and adults alike. And in an age of relativism when the lines between right and wrong are blurred, it’s nice to see a movie that clearly draws the line.