(Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Jim Sturgess, Emily Barclay, David Wenham, Anthony LaPaglia, Miriam Margolyes, Helen Mirren, Joel Edgerton, Geoffrey Rush, Ryan Kwanten, Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Barry Otto, Leigh Whannell, Sam Neill, Adrienne DeFaria, Abbie Cornish. Directed by Zack Snyder
As CGI animated features have become more sophisticated, they have begun to attract big-name live action directors. Snyder, who arguably has plenty of CGI experience with his previous two features 300 and Watchmen goes all the way with this adaptation of the first three of Kathryn Lasky’s series of novels for young adults, The Guardians of Ga’Hoole.
Young Soren (Sturgess) is entranced by the stories of the mythic Guardians of Ga’Hoole told by his dad Noctus (Weaving); the Guardians are a group of owls who live far, far away who come when owlkind is threatened – did I mention Soren is a barn owl? – and aid the weak against the strong. Soren even has his own hero, Lyze of Kiel, who defeated the evil leader of the Pure Ones in the Battle of the Ice Claw and disfigured him, forcing him to wear a metal helmet to hide his disfigurements.
His sister Eglantine (DeFaria) shares in his rapt adoration of the Guardians stories but his brother Kludd (Kwanten) is less impressed. He is in fact quite jealous of the attention Soren gets from his father, and is constantly falling short of Soren’s accomplishments.
The two go out to practice branching, a practice in which young owls glide from branch to branch in the large tree that they live in as a preface to learning how to fly for real. However, an angry Kludd knocks over Soren when he is attempting to leap off a branch, causing Kludd to lose his balance as well and the two brothers wind up on the ground, not the place they want to be.
It isn’t long before the two find out why their father warned them about the ground; they are attacked by a large rodent-like creature and it looks like one or both of them are destined to be rodent dinner until they are saved by a pair of strange owls who take them far away, to St. Aegolius, an aerie inhabited by the Pure Ones. Nyra (Mirren), the mate of Metalbeak (Whannell) who still lives, informs them that they’ve been abandoned by their families and are now part of the Tyto family – their word for Pure Ones. The strong will be Tyto warriors; the weak will be Pickers. When Soren speaks up to defend Gylfie (Barclay), an elf owl that Soren befriended on the journey to St. Aegolius, he and Gylfie are relegated with most of the others to being Pickers. Soren calls out to Kludd but Kludd denies him, and joins the Tytos.
The rest are led outside and made to sleep under the glare of the full moon, which Gylfie informs Soren will lead to a zombie-like state in which they’ll become pliable and docile. Soren means to resist the effect by staying awake the night, which he and Gylfie do. They discover the next morning that their work will involve sifting through owl pellets, the regurgitated remains of the mice and other animals that owls eat, to find a small metallic bit called a fleck, which the Pure Ones are using to create a weapon that creates a magnetic field that disorients owls. They use bats to actually handle the flecks as bats are immune to the effect.
Soren and Gylfie make plans to escape but before they do they are taken aside by Grimble (also Weaving), the Pure One who had kidnapped Gylfie. Once safe in his library, he tells them he’s been waiting for someone who would stand up to the other Pure Ones and avoid being moon-blinked; he would have left long ago if his family wasn’t being held hostage. He tries to teach them how to fly so they can escape and warn the Guardians, but they are interrupted by the arrival of Nyra, Kludd and a group of Tyto warriors. Grimble tries to hold them off to buy the two some time to escape; Soren hesitates and calls again to Kludd but it is clear that Kludd has become one of the Tytos and he again denies Soren. The two, forced to flee, barely manage to escape but Grimble dies defending them.
Exhausted, they look for a place to rest and meet Digger (Wenham), a somewhat eccentric burrowing owl and his friend Twilight (LaPaglia), a great grey owl who fancies himself a warrior bard, although his poetry leaves something to be desired. Hearing that Soren and Gylfie are off to find the Guardians, they offer to go with them on the adventure, Twilight knowing where the Sea of Hoolemere is, which is where the Island of Ga’Hoole resides. Twilight has also captured Mrs. Plithever (Margolyes), the snake that acted as nanny to Soren, Kludd and Eglantine, ostensibly as dinner but now they have a fifth companion.
On the way there, they discover an Echidna (Otto), a mystic who knows more about their journey than they let on. While flying through a raging ice storm, they are discovered by two guardians – one of whom happens to be King Boron (Roxburgh) – and escorted back to Ga’Hoole. There their story is heard, disbelieved by Allomere (Neill), one of their trusted advisors, but believed by Ezylryb (Rush), who is very eccentric but also an advisor. Boron decides to send Allomere to scout out the situation.
Eventually he returns, having barely returned alive but with two young owlets that have been moon-blinked, one of whom is Eglantine, who was led to it by her own brother. As the guardians gird for war, they have no way of knowing that they will be betrayed by someone close to them and that a hero will rise from the least likely among them. But will it be enough to overcome the numerical superiority of the Pure Ones, or evade the trap that is being laid for them?
The first thing you need to know about this movie is that the animation is absolutely superb. The owls look real, and the backgrounds are spectacular. An owl civilization is created that looks not unlike the elf civilization of Lord of the Rings. The owls are given human characteristics and each one is easily distinguishable from the others. Considering that in the past all owls looked pretty much alike to me, that’s no mean feat. Kudos must be given to Animal Logic, the Aussie firm that did most of the animation. Work like this will put them in the league of Pixar before too very long, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this winds up nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar come February.
This is certainly a work of fantasy, and it borrows heavily from all sorts of genres, from the high fantasy of the aforementioned Lord of the Rings to the Star Wars saga and even bits of the Indiana Jones adventures. The Pure Ones have been compared to the Nazis and while in some ways that comparison is dead on, I would also liken them to the Kali cult of India as depicted in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
While the Aussie accents are occasionally thick enough that some of the small tykes around me were repeatedly asking their parents what was just said, the voice acting is top notch here, particularly Sturgess (whose star is rising these days) as the heroic Soren, Wenham as the loopy Digger, LaPaglia as the unctuous Twilight and Mirren as the imperious Nyra.
The main complaint I have about the movie is that it seemed to be cramming a whole lot of story into the 90 minute runtime. At times the pacing seems a little rushed, which gave short shrift to some of the characters and story points. However, that’s a fairly minor sin when compared with all the positives the movie had going for it.
Another aside; the music here is wonderful, and they made effective use of Dead Can Dance’s “The Host of Seraphim” during the climactic battle scene. That happens to be one of my favorite songs, and it is so cinematic in tone that I have often wondered why it hadn’t been used in a movie until now. Dead Can Dance singer Lisa Gerrard’s voice is used on two occasions in the movie (once from one of her solo albums) and it enhances the movie’s mythic quality.
In fact, that is one of the things I liked the most about the movie, and the word “mythic” sums it up well. Lasky created a credible owl mythology, as credible as any of the fantasy worlds you would find in adult fantasy (I’m talking George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice, Piers Anthony’s Xanth and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time so get your mind out of the gutter, it’s crowding me) and it translates nicely to the screen. I found it easy enough to follow, and it gives the movie an epic scope.
Perhaps because the movie is something of a hybrid, or perhaps people just aren’t plain interested in seeing owls as lead characters, the movie has underperformed at the box office thus far, although good word of mouth may eventually wind up saving it. I hope so, because it is clearly one of the class of the field of this year’s animated movies, clearly as good as How to Train a Dragon or Despicable Me, both of which did far better at the box office than this one has thus far. Even if you don’t have kids who want to see it, I urge you to go anyway; there’s plenty there to delight adults and if you like some of the aforementioned influences, you will love this as much as I did.
REASONS TO GO: The animation is phenomenal, up there with Pixar’s best work. The storyline is easy to follow, and along the lines of great fantasy works as Lord of the Rings.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes the pace seems a bit too hurried, as if the filmmakers were trying to cram too much in to the time kids would be likely to sit still for.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of brutality that might be too much for the very young, but otherwise okay for most family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film directed by Zack Snyder not to be rated R. This is also the first film Snyder directed not to debut in the number one position in the box office rankings.
HOME OR THEATER: Absolutely this should be seen in a theater; the breathtaking animation is worth it, and I would also recommend that you shell out the extra few bucks for 3D as well.
FINAL RATING: 8/10
TOMORROW: City of God