By Brian Lafferty
September 24, 2010 (San Diego)--I watched Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole in a packed theater. Much of the audience consisted of parents and kids, many of them ranging between three to seven years old. There was an air of excitement in the theater during the half hour before the screening. But within the first fifteen minutes all the fun was sucked out. By the end, the atmosphere was cold and joyless. I left the screening depressed, manipulated, angry and appalled. This movie is based on a series of children’s novels but it is definitely not for kids. I will feel sorry for parents who will be understandably misled and take their kids to see a movie that will leave their young ones with tears and nightmares.
The subject of this misguided film is Soren, a somewhat cowardly owl voiced by Jim Sturgess. He and his brother Kludd (voiced by Ryan Kwanten) get lost sneaking out of their nest. They are then kidnapped by big, terrifying owls who take them to a far island and are forced into slavery. Soren and Gylfie, a little owlet voiced by Emily Barclay, escape and must make their way to the legendary Tree of Ga’Hoole. In the meantime, Kludd joins the evil owls in preparing for war.
I have no objection to the overall story itslef. If handled with taste and with some consideration for those in elementary school and younger the movie would have worked. It all depends on the execution.
The problem is that it was directed by Zack Snyder. He directed 300 and The Watchmen, two very violent, R-rated films that I enjoyed immensely. He is a very skilled director but he was not the right person for this movie. His previous efforts, which also include Dawn of the Dead, were intended for adult audiences. Here he tries to make a film that appeals to both kids and adults but it ends up a major misfire that results in not pleasing either crowd.
Like Snyder’s previous films, Legend of the Guardians is violent only this time there is no blood. It doesn’t make the violence any less tame. The weapon of choice for owls are sharp razors inserted onto their talons. When they’re utilized in battle, Snyder slows down these shots to give them a bigger impact. Owls are burned alive, attacked by a badger with red eyes, and tortured. Snyder handles these scenes well for adults but they are way too intense for the younger crowd.
The problem is the violence is not only gratuitous but not properly contextualized. The bad owls’s motivation for war is their feeling of superiority; they believe owls that are not pure-blooded like them are worthless. This imbues every fight scene with qualities that are unhealthy, exploitive, and negative.
The best aspect of the movie is the animation. It is gorgeous and eye-popping. From the treetops and moonlit bottom of Soren’s home in the forest to the Tree of Ga’Hoole teeming with lush greenery and waterfalls to the beautiful cliffs, the animation is great to look at even in 3D. The flying scenes are majestic. The owls are detailedly drawn, with a lot of care going into their design. This is evident in their feathers, which look realistic.
Zack Snyder has shown he can work with animation and create breath-taking visuals. This was not the right project but he shouldn’t give up. He’s better off working on animated movies geared towards adults, a demographic he has always successfully appealed to.
Watching Legend of the Guardians reminded me of an animated movie that also features animals and is also based on a book but is not for kids. I’m referring to Watership Down. Now that is something I can envision him doing.