Owling at the Moon.
LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA’HOOLE is epic and poignant and majestic and cute in all the right owly ways.
Young forest owl Soren (voice of Jim Sturgess) is a dreamer, infatuated with mythical tales of the Guardians – ancient owls who defend owly honor throughout the land. His older brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) poo-poos Soren wearing makeshift leaf helmets and reenacting Guardian legends (equivalent to us kids tying towels around our necks and fantasizing we are Superman), while Soren’s father Noctus (Hugo Weaving) encourages Soren to dream big. (Weaving’s voice is so distinctive as Agent Smith from THE MATRIX that we’re constantly expecting him to drop an accidental, serpentine “Mr. Anderson.”)
Soren and brother Kludd are kidnapped by mountain owls led by the fearsome Metalbeak (Joel Edgerton). Like every great villain, Metalbeak wants to rule all of owldom for no apparent reason. In the grand tradition of being evil and rebranding yourself as something beneficial (Republicans’ rebranding of the rich as “job-creators” comes to mind), Metalbeak’s villainous owls are called The Pure Ones. (This also conjures the Republican-based Tea Party “tests for purity.”)
At the Pure Ones’ wrought-iron mountain aerie, owlets like Soren are brainwashed by being forced to stare at the Moon, being overcome by a blank stare called “moonblink” and subjected to slave labor, collecting mystical blue pellets hoarded by bats for some buzzing energy source cauldron. Soren and a cute dwarf owl, Gylfie (Emily Barclay) escape the clutches of the Pure Ones, ally with a couple of other owl characters (and a snake!), and must fly across a vast ocean to warn the actual Guardians of Ga’Hoole of Metalbeak’s plot.
This Australian CG cartoon (where all the accents are amusingly DownUnda) is lifted from the series of books by Kathryn Lasky, and directed by Zack Snyder, using the same filmic techniques he used in his poetically violent 300: during battle scenes, the shink of steel augmenting talons, the clash of claw on flesh; fearsome slaughter crashed with sudden slomo and balletic arcs. Let’s face it: if it was all in real time, ‘twould be nought but a flurry of feathers.
The animation is startling, with jaw-dropping attention to detail, especially in the avian faces that boldly display the palette of human emotion. (These blips are literally better actors than Rob Schneider, Will Ferrell, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez, Keanu Reeves, and anyone in any given George Romero film). We are so used to seeing smooth people and surroundings (PLANET 51, DESPICABLE ME) that GA’HOOLE is a welcome sensory overload of feathers, forest and flying; wings making shadows through smoke in the sunlight; exhilarating flight, transporting us with every camera swoop to the freedom of the skies; striking battle scenes in three dimensions – by that I mean, air battle like dogfighting feathered Spitfires, not putting on 3D glasses. Diametrically opposite to a CG cartoon like CARS, with its clinical steel and sleek sterility, these animals of GA’HOOLE breathe with an organic, fluttering life force.
Another plus is that the story is not preachy. Besides the passé “follow your dreams” trope, there is avarice (Metalbeak), caution (a legendary hero owl hides within the community in plain sight), betrayal (Kludd – like Edmund in Narnia – betrays his brother Soren), and loyalty (Soren fights for his family and baby sister Eglantine). GA’HOOLE doesn’t send any stupid messages to kids via talking animals.
Sam Neill voices the regal Allomere, David Wenham is a frisky little Digger owl, Anthony LaPaglia voices the artiste Twilight (who plays the lute!), Geoffrey Rush is the Guardian Lyze of Kiel, and Helen Mirren is the Pure One headmistress.
The payoffs are mighty, because – as in all these stories of legendary heroes – the legends are REAL, and Our Young Hero stakes a place for himself among the legends with a final battle that makes the feathers rise on your neck and arms. The Zack Snyder battle slomo helps, backlit by raging inferno and orgiastic orchestra – oh, rapturous raptor!
I am just left to wonder: How did the owls create all these beaten iron structures without opposable thumbs?