Monday, November 12, 2012

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

After an entire month of horror movie reviews, what better way to cleanse the palette than an animated feature for children?  I opted to go with a movie that I had always been curious about, but never went to see because...well...I don't have kids, so I can pick and choose my animated movie experiences.  Aside from the fact that the CG animation looks amazing in this trailer, this is also Zack Snyder's first effort at directing an animated movie (although I would argue that Watchmen and 300 come pretty darn close), and I've always liked his visual touch, so hopefully this is pretty awesome.

In a throwback to 80s "children" movies like The Dark Crystal, The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole opens with a kidnapping.  After all, who says that children's movies shouldn't make your children cry?  Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess) is an owl that was goofing off with his little brother, Kludd (Ryan Kwanten), when Kludd kicks Soren out of the nest, before he could fly.  And, because nature abhors terrible siblings, Kludd also lost his balance and fell to the base of their maghty home tree, with Soren.  Instead of getting eaten by Tasamanian Devils, which was apparently an option, the pair was rescued/kidnapped by a couple of dim-witted adult owls.  These scary-looking creatures take young Soren and Kludd to a distant land, where they are presented with an interesting choice.  They can either follow the racist/speciesist teachings of Nyra (Helen Mirren), queen of the Pure Ones, or they can become mindless slaves.
Alternate title: White (Owl) Power
Kludd opts to follow the obvious villain, while Soren rebels and tries to escape.  The strange thing about the Pure Ones is that they're supposed to be the stuff of legend; Soren and Kludd grew up to takes of them being the villains in a long battle against the heroic Guardians.  If the Pure Ones are real, I wonder if the Guardians could be real, too?
Above: an owl realizing that someone wrote sixteen books about owl racism

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole could not be a modern animated movie without a ridiculously famous cast of voice actors.  The most effective in their roles were probably Helen Mirren and Geoffrey Rush; both have wonderfully emotive voices and did a fine job as important, but ultimately peripheral, characters.  Rush plays a great grouch, so it was nice to see that talent being utilized.  Hugo Weaving had a double role, although his voice talents are not exactly what I would call "audibly versatile."  He fine fine in both parts, but anyone who knows his voice can instantly recognize him in both roles.  Joel Edgerton was pretty good as the head bad guy, but it seems odd in retrospect that he was the cast member chosen for the villain role, and not Weaving or Rush.
Maybe he got the role thanks to his physical presence
Sam Neill was well-cast in a bit part, where his lovely voice was meant to be a contrast to his character's actions, and that was nicely done.  But those are just the most notable supporting voice actors.  Jim Sturgess played the main character, a young and idealistic owl who sometimes gets the benefits of super-slow motion shots.
Sturgess was fine, but this is a pretty generic character and he didn't really add anything special to the part.  An odd thing about this cast (that I just noticed) is that it is predominantly Australian, with a few Brits  sprinkled here and there.  I didn't realize that owls needed to speak the Queen's English.  Ryan Kwanten, Anthony LaPaglia, Richard Roxburgh, Leigh Whannell, David Wenham, Essie Davis, Abbie Cornish, and Angus Sampson, Aussies one and all, had roles of varying importance.  Most of their voices were recognizable, but I guess that's point when you fill your voice cast with actual actors.  None of them were bad, but none were too impressive.  As for the non-Australian supporting cast, I thought Miriam Margolyes was suitably cartoonish as a snake nanny and Emily Barclay was suitably bland as the romantic interest for Jim Sturgess.
Romantic owl eyes are slightly unsettling

What about Zack Snyder's direction?  It's no secret that Snyder likes to aim for "epic" as a director, and he did a solid job framing Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole in an epic fashion.  It is interesting watching Snyder's direction in a film where he can get exactly the visuals he wants.  It's not too different from his normal style.  The visuals are stunning.  The slow-motion is prominent and occasionally questionable.
Or, as Snyder likes to call it, "The speed at which all things should happen"
There are large-scale battles, where a small cast of heroes faces down a large number of interchangeable villains.
They're like Storm Troopers that cough up pellets
Snyder tells the story ably enough, but he doesn't get great performances out of his most important characters.  The ideas of love and betrayal have never been prominent in any of Snyder's other films, so seeing him ignore them in a children's story might not be as surprising as it should be.  Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole has all the basic elements of an entertaining animated film, but there's no emotional core to it. Part of the problem is with the writing, which spends little time on characterization, but the director should notice a little thing like entirely two-dimensional characters and have it changed.
I'm guessing he focused more on eye reflections than the script

My other problem with Legend of the Guardians is that it feels very, very familiar.  If you're familiar with Star Wars or the Chronicles of Narnia, or just about any other epic tale with children as an intended audience, then you've seen this plot before.  A lot of kid's movies are like that, but this feels like a Frankenstein of epic childhood fiction, with the only new addition being the owls.
This scene actually dubs in dialogue from Attack of the Clones
I take that back.  Making some of the child characters into mindless slaves is somewhat unique, especially in a movie aimed at children.

The moment that crystallized my feelings toward Legend of the Guardians came toward the end.  After growing up with tales of the Guardians of Ga'Hoole, Soren is happy to tell his father that the Guardians are not just legend, but are real.  His father's response was, "You made them real."  At first glance, it looks like the meaningless "kids rawk" fluff that often pops up in animated movies.  But this was so blatantly wrong that my wife got seriously irritated.  She actually raised her voice to ask, "HOW?  They already exist!"  My wife doesn't like every movie, but she doesn't loudly question movies very often.  To put that in perspective, the last time she watched an animated feature and wasn't happy with it was G-Force.  Congrats, Legend of the Guardians, you are in elite company.  Apparently, there was not enough cute to counteract the dull and stupid here.
Sorry kid, not cute enough

Let's be honest, though.  This is a movie for kids, and the standards of entertainment for children are comically low.  Sadly, Legend of the Guardians doesn't quite meet those unimpressive standards.  There are a few moments that truly "wow" the viewer --- yes, they are in slow motion --- but they are not the most important or memorable parts of the plot.
This scene > rain flying
However, thanks to the dull story, these inconsequential scenes are what I remember most about this film.  The story is too dark to be cutesy, but there are characters clearly designed to just be cute.  And yet, the story is not dark enough to be frightening or to make the story less predictable.  Even the primary staple of animated movies, the goofy supporting character, is absent for most of this movie.  Yes, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole looks nice, but it is genuinely uninteresting and charmless.

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