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28 March 2011
Do please note, just because I've gone and called Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole Snyder's "best" film in six years, that's not the same as accusing it of being itself particularly good, and certainly not a patch on his first film, 2004's remake Dawn of the Dead, a fairly excellent zombie film by the standards of the '00s and the mark of a filmmaking discipline that Snyder has never seen fit to indulge in since. Only that compared to the simultaneously plodding and chaotic video game orgasms of 300 and the stultifying, style-heavy, undernourished transoposition of the comic book Watchmen to the cinema, Legend of the Guardians is at least fairly watchable, if more than slightly incoherent, and when all else fails it has a fairly unshakable claim as being one of the prettiest animated films you'll ever see, a loving-unto-obsessive rendering of owls as irresistibly touchable and unexpectedly expressive by the same animation studio that gave us the excellent Happy Feet. That's the best and probably the only significant achievement of this film: in those moments when the bizarre plot and stock characters aren't enough to hold your attention - and I think that only the most saintly of viewers could forgive the film all of its storytelling lapses - there's always going to be some stupidly gorgeous tableau to hold your attention.
Based upon the first three novels of a 15-volume series for young adults by Kathryn Lasky, and adapted by John Orloff and Emil Stern - a pair of writers who, had not previously worked together and whose combined previous experience in family entertainment, fantasy adventure, and animation consisted of exactly no films - Legend of the Guardians is the coming-of-age saga of a young barn owl named Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess using Elijah Wood's accent from The Lord of the Rings), who lives in a tree with his parents and siblings and the family nanny, who is a snake. I could not get over that, and that reflects poorly on me. But come on, she's a snake. Owls eat snakes. So maybe she's a slave. Maybe she bartered with the owl family for her life in exchange for endless servitude. Also, she's played by Miriam Margolyes, who sadly does not use the opportunity to bust out her Krazy Hispanic Nurse from the Baz Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet.
Sorry about that. Okay, so Soren is an enthusiast, as you might say with slightly arched eyebrow and just a hint of disapproval. He's specifically enthusiastic about the legend of the Guardians, the owls of Ga'Hoole. Once upon a time, you see, the noble warrior owls who live in a tree far across the sea fought the wicked Metalbeak, a story that Soren tells and retells with the greatest pleasure, to the scorn of his brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten). Yada yada yada, Soren and a band of other owls - the tiny but brave Gylfie (Emily Barclay), goofy Digger (David Wenham), and robust, actorly Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia) have flown across the Sea of Hoolemere to find the Guardians, no legends but feather and blood owls like anyone, and enlist their help in fighting the very-much-alive Me\talbeak (Joel Edgerton) and his second in command Nyra (Helen Mirren), who have been enslaving owlets - including Soren's tiny sister Eglantine (Adrienne DeFaria) as their slave army. And to make matters worse, Kludd has been seduced by Nyra's master-racey teachings and has thrown his lot in with the so-called Pure Ones, the owls of the genus Tyto who believe themselves the most superior of all beings.
That "yada yada yada" is the key. I could certainly have traced out better what happens to connect Point A and Point R, and it wouldn't even seem ridiculous as such - though the fact that it all takes place in about 25 minutes is ridiculous in the extreme. And here is the grand flaw of Legend of the Guardians: in the filmmakers' zeal to condense three books with their own discrete narrative arcs into a single 97-minute feature, they failed to consider such niceties as pacing and world-building, which is why the last 92 of those 97 minutes* are blitzed through with frankly terrifying speed, a crack binge tour of a universe sufficiently complex and detailed and alien that just taking a little bit of a breather to let us feel our way through it would not only be appreciated, it's completely damn necessary.
We don't get that breather; instead, we get a hurricane of ideas both verbal and visual, alongside a vocabulary that's flung at us on the fly, the assumption being that we'll figure it out or die trying. Little owls become zombies if they fall asleep watching the moon (why?) and there's a Tasmanian devil and an echidna in addition to a menagerie of owls from both hemispheres. Look the owls have forges. The owls are selected for specific courses of knowledge based on what they're good at but that ends up paying no narrative dividends in this episode, at least. The bad owls are collecting magnetic metal flecks from the stomachs in mice in owl pellets because when all the metal is combined it creates a giant magnetic nexus that pins the owls to the ground (WHY?) (and there's actually kind of a real reason why, but the movie never even vaguely explores it). And oh lord, the names that get pitched at you! They're not especially silly by fantasy novel standards, but when you're trying to juggle them all at once and the movie simply will not pause to let you collect your thoughts, they start to blur: Soren Kludd Nyra Noctus Boron Otulissa Ezylryb Gylfie.
When the film pauses, it never does so to allow the narrative to catch up to the momentum, but to capture some moment of visual beauty with particularly pornish emphasis: the shot from the trailer of water drops cascading from Soren's wings in crystalline patterns is a particularly straightforward example of what happens over and over again, but then, using slow-motion to emphasise a specific, "cool" moment has been basically the sole trick in Snyder's bag ever since 300. And at least, Legend of the Guardians, with a demure PG rating (it's not hard to imagine that in the early '90s, it would have gotten a G, that would have been accompanied by furrowed brows and thought pieces about how animated pictures just never get tagged PG), focuses rather on moments of visual beauty than on raw violence. That is to say, it's style over substance right down the line, but at least it's never brutal or morally suspicious, something true of none of the director's other films - not even Dawn of the Dead.
And heck: it's never boring. Ever. The flurry of notions and plot points and details that leaves the film an incoherent wrack as a story also makes sure that you're so busy wondering what the hell is going on at this particular instant, that it's never languid. Of course, there's always the option of finding it all so crazy and arbitrary that it achieves the boredom of the aimless chaotic, but for me, though I surely found Legend of the Guardians impossible to follow in stretches (I literally rewound at three or four points, assuming I'd dozed off for some important plot development only to find that no, it just skipped ahead like that), it's visually dazzling in a much cleaner, purer way than most equally busy action films can claim. It's not exactly a kid's movie, but there's a whole-hearted candor to it that serves the film well, a love of spectacle that never becomes rancid in the way of most like-minded stylistic exercises.