Tuesday, December 28, 2010

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

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole ***
Directed by: Zack Snyder.
Written By: John Orloff and Emil Stern based on the books by Kathryn Lasky.
Starring: Jim Sturgess (Soren), Geoffrey Rush (Ezylryb), Helen Mirren (Nyra), Emily Barclay (Gylfie), Abbie Cornish (Otulissa), Joel Edgerton (Metalbeak), Ryan Kwanten (Kludd), Sam Neill (Allomere), Anthony LaPaglia (Twilight), Miriam Margolyes (Mrs. Plithiver), Hugo Weaving (Noctus / Grimble), David Wenham (Digger), Leigh Whannell (Jatt).

Zack Snyder has made a name for himself directing ultra violent films like Dawn of the Dead, 300 and Watchmen. His films are largely visceral experiences that depend more on visuals than on writing or either logic. I admired Dawn of the Dead as a straight ahead horror film, hated 300 because it was overly repetitive and quite enjoyed Watchmen, even if it showed little imagination in translating Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel. What I did not expect from Snyder was for him to go from those three films to an animated film about owls. But now having seen the film, I can say with confidence that Legend of the Guardians is precisely the animated film about owls you would expect from the director of 300. It is much darker and more violent than most animated films aimed at children. But it is dark in the way that children’s films used to be dark - preying on the fears of children to get into their heads. When you think back to films like The Wizard of Oz or some of the early Disney films, they did something similar. Yes, this film is more violent and stylized than those films, but I was still reminded of them when watching this film.

As a young owling Soren hears tales from his father about the legendary Guardians of Ga’Hoole, a band of heroic owls who fought bravely against the evil Metalbeak to free all the owl kingdoms. His brother Kludd doesn’t put much stock in these stories, but Soren eats them up. It isn’t long however before their idyllic life is broken when both brothers are kidnapped and taken to the home base of Metalbeak, who is rebuilding his army of Pures, to take another run at the Guardians. These scenes are perhaps the most disturbing of any in the film - the images deliberately call to mind the Holocaust, with the “lower” owls being turned into mindless slaves of the upper class. Of course, it isn’t long before Soren escapes and goes looking for the Guardians to once again save the day. Kludd on the other hand, buys into Metalbeak’s philosophy hook, line and sinker - setting up a classic brother vs. brother climatic fight. When Soren does finally get to the Guardians, they are everything he dreamed of and more - especially the wise old Ezylryb, who takes him under his wing to make him a better owl.

Like all of Snyder’s films (and judging on the previews for Sucker Punch, this trend will continue), Legend of the Guardians is hyper stylized - perhaps too much so at times. He loves to use slow motion to heighten reality and violence and to try and make his films more visceral and impactful. It works here better than at other times in his career - after all, animation is all about style. Yet, to a certain extent I think Snyder will be a better director when he learns that sometimes less is more - you don’t have to direct every scene dialed up all the way to 11.

Legend of the Guardians is a dark film - a violent film - and it will likely not be good for really young children, who are going to be scared by much of the film - especially the evil Metalbeak. But older children will most likely eat it up - and fans of Snyder’s other films, which were all hard R rated action films, should give it a chance as well - it delivers what they want out of a Snyder film no matter who the main characters are. For the second time this year (following Toy Story 3), an animated film invokes images of the Holocaust for affect. When Toy Story did it, it made me cry. When it was done here, it was more disturbing.

Legend of the Guardians is a fine film. It was animated in the same style that Happy Feet used - by George Miller another director known more for live action than animation. It perhaps moves too quickly - never really settling down and instead trying to go for the throat at all times. But while I don’t think it’s a great film, it is a very good one, and a worthy film in Snyder’s continuing development as a director.

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