There is nothing surprising about an epic fantasy that follows a young potential hero who goes on a long journey to find help in overthrowing the forces of evil. It’s basic Joseph Campbell. What makes Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole stand out is that all of the characters are owls. Furthermore, these are family-friendly computer-generated owls directed by Zack Snyder, the man behind the zippy Dawn of the Dead remake, the tedious Greek battle 300, and the slavishly reverential graphic novel adaptation Watchmen. Replacing his trademark blood sprays with plumes of dislodged feathers, Snyder makes sure to include plenty of bombast and slow-motion so that we can enjoy every little piece of these birds.
At first, the ponderous owls, with their intense proclamations and complex mythology, charmed me. But then, sitting through scene after repetitive, formless scene, I quickly grew tired of the visual monotony and painfully thin narrative. This is a film that takes its anthropomorphic creatures very seriously. The characters move about more or less how I picture real owls would. They flap, they glide, and they swoop down to snatch up prey with their gleaming talons. Unlike real owls, these have learned how to become blacksmiths. They don metal helmets and sharp talon-extensions that glint in the moonlight as they dive down towards each other in grotesque imitations of human combat.
Why do these owls fight? I don’t really know. The harder I worked to figure out the varied political currents that run through the various owl species and kingdoms, the less I cared. It’s very clear, though, that the pure-white owl with Helen Mirren’s voice is evil of the worst kind. Her minions capture young owls from all over the land, including our hero, the one with Jim Sturgess’s voice. These captive owls are either brainwashed into brainless harvesters searching for flecks of metal or sent into intense training to become a soldier. Our hero escapes and sets off on a quest to find the Owls of Ga’Hoole, semi-mystical, possibly mythical, guardians of all that is good amongst fowl.
This is a movie that’s constantly on the move. Each scene careens into the next scene. The owls fly here and there and endlessly explain themselves. Then they find themselves in some kind of danger and – whew! – escape to fly somewhere else. I must admit that I often found the owls hard to differentiate. Looking at the credits, I would have a very hard time indeed informing you as to the difference between Gylfie (Emily Barclay), Otulissa (Abbie Cornish), and Eglantine (Adrienne DeFaria). (Though I’m pretty sure Digger (David Wenham) is the one that’s supposed to be funny because he flings dirt). It got so confusing I couldn’t even tell whether it was Geoffrey Rush, Sam Neill or Hugo Weaving with his voice coming out of a flapping beak.
That was hardly the end of my confusion. I never quite had a handle on why the evil owls needed all that metal, even, or especially, when they put it to use by making it shoot blue bolts of something. I also couldn’t understand the hierarchy of the owl world that seems to consist of different species (clans? families?) that had little or no knowledge of each other, except when it was necessary to advance the plot. With such wide-ranging evil being perpetrated by the villains, surely we wouldn’t need a scene where the hero needs to convince some other owls that this is happening?
Then again, I couldn’t follow the geography of this crazy place either. For all I know, these owls fly all the way around the world during the course of the story. This movie only really succeeded in giving me a headache. Note to future owl-epic authors: learn from the mistakes of Snyder and his screenwriters John Orloff and Emil Stern. When making a film about a world populated almost entirely by owls, at least let the audience understand the world to some degree. (Though it’s not without its problems, see 1982’s The Secret of NIMH for an example of mildly dark fantasy in the animal world done more or less coherently). The Owls of Ga’Hoole quickly lost me with its seemingly disconnected settings, thinly sketched characters, and its painfully obvious formula. Yes, it was sometimes pleasing to the eye, but it sure wasn’t worth sitting through the film for those rare moments.