From the concepts and the commercials, Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’Hoole may not sound like a project from Zack Snyder, director of Watchmen, 300, and 2004’s Dawn Of The Dead remake. It’s a CGI children’s fantasy that pits good talking owls against evil ones, taken from Kathryn Lasky’s popular book series, and it lacks the gore and grimness of Snyder’s past work. But within seconds of its opening, a feather drifts off an owl’s wing, spins in midair in ultra slow motion, then slams into full speed again. It’s instantly clear that while Snyder the gorehound isn’t at the wheel, Snyder the slick stylist is, with his usual exclamation-point-loaded visual signatures. While that can’t compensate for Legend’s weak story, his pacing and cutting and the film’s superlative animation at least make it a dynamic experience.
Unfortunately, the story rarely rises above cookie-cutter kids’-fantasy tropes: It’s a standard hero’s-journey story, one that substitutes colorful characters for actual incident. The protagonist, a barn owl named Soren (Jim Sturgess), runs afoul of a tyrannical owl society devoted to collecting a magical MacGuffin with dubious plot powers. He escapes with a tiny elf owl (Emily Barclay), befriends wacky owls voiced by David Wenham and Anthony LaPaglia, and seeks help from a legendary collective of owl heroes. Meanwhile, Soren’s brother falls under the wing of evil owl queen Nyra (Helen Mirren). It all builds to the expected good-vs.-bad/brother-on-brother confrontations, which Snyder directs with multitudinous slow-motion, sparks-throwing clashes between owl armor and metal-sheathed claws.
Much of what works in Legend can be credited to Animal Logic, the studio behind 2006’s Happy Feet; its animators have created a vivid world with deep, gorgeous spaces that become stunning in 3-D, and owls that would have made Walt Disney weep with their feather-perfect realism and natural movement. And to anyone young enough to have not already seen dozens of rote Chosen One Vs. Generic Evil fables, Legend may well be as exciting as it is beautiful. But there’s no nuance or subtlety to hook the adult audiences for whom “Owls go from A to B” is a framework, not a complete story. And a cliché wrought in finely detailed feathers is still all too obviously a cliché.