If the exhaustingly named Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole is good for anything (besides holding the title for best owl movie ever), it should finally put to rest the idea that Zack Snyder is a “visionary” director—as the ad campaign for his adaptation of Watchmen (2009) boasted last year. When other directors, like Tim Burton or Wes Anderson, have made the jump to animated features, they’ve put their finger prints all over the finished product, making those movies wholly and singularly their own. In the case of Legend of the Guardians, the only thing particularly Snyder-ian about it is his self-indulgent use of slow motion and the awful choice of pop music dumped into the middle of the film.
Some might argue in favor of Snyder’s “artful composition,” but what he’s peddling is glossier than it is stylish or inventive. This isn’t to say that the film isn’t nice to look at—it is, often even stunningly so. And its gorgeous use of 3-D is a rarity in the recent use of this resurrected gimmick. But there’s nothing exactly visionary—or even original—going on in the film, to the point that it feels like just about anyone could’ve made it.
Part of this is due to the movie’s standing as another attempt at cashing in on the recent trend of popular teen-centric fantasy novels and even more popular fantasy films. The only problem with this is that Legend of the Guardians is trying so hard to fill the void that will soon be left by the Harry Potter franchise that it never takes the time to be its own film. All the movie has to offer in the way of freshness is its all-talking owl cast.
The story has its roots in any number of fantasies. Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess, Across the Universe)—a young, idealistic hero and barn owl—must stop an evil plan (with the help of the legendary Guardians of Ga’Hoole) by the nefarious Metalbeak (Joel Edgerton, The Square) to rule the world of owls, a world that looks a bit like the Middle Earth. It’s your normal battle of good versus evil, full of names no one can pronounce and plot points from every populist fantasy/sci-fi you can name. Sure, there’s bits of Lord of the Rings and even Harry Potter here, but what the film most resembles is Star Wars (1977)—right down to its final scene of a ticker-tape celebration. And for anyone who disagrees, please explain to me how “trusting your gizzard” is any different than “using the force.”
Overall, the story is pretty forgettable. It doesn’t help that it’s difficult to tell the varying owls apart for the first chunk of the film, let alone relate to their flimsy characters. About the only thing thematically interesting in the movie is its somewhat obvious—yet admirable—allegory of the dangers of fascism (namely Nazism, since the baddies are attempting to purify their race) and its deglamorization of violence—which is in direct opposition to what Snyder was putting forth in his 300 (2006). Generally, Snyder seems to pick movie projects less on content and more on how many opportunities for slo-mo machismo and wholesale maiming there are available.
In the end, the movie is so paint-by-numbers that it never rises above adequate. Maybe it’s me, but I expect more from my animated owls. Decades later, I still remember the question of how many licks it takes to get to the middle of a Tootsie Roll Pop; I doubt I’ll remember that much about the Legend of the Guardians owls in a matter of months. For kids, it may be a better bet, but the tone is so dark and sinister that it might be a bit much for many. What it all adds up to is a reasonably satisfactory bit of entertainment, but with nothing really worth recommending beyond its ace animation. Rated PG for some sequences of scary action.