"The strong shall rule the weak!"
You may be familiar with this one. It's the owl movie. It's the one about the good, sweet, innocent owls and the mean, nasty, Nazi owls.
The problem is that owls are not all that interesting. Now, don't get me wrong; I love owls. The real birds are among my favorite animals. But as characters in a movie, well, they all tend to look alike, and they don't have a lot of personality even when voiced by noted actors. So it's hard to get excited about them or their actions, especially when the characters and actions are as pedestrian as in 2010's CGI-animated feature "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole."
OK, I know I'm going to get flack for saying the above about a story well loved by a legion of the books' fans. I take my chances. While director Zack Snyder and screenwriters John Orloff and Emil Stern adapted the script from the best-selling novels by Kathryn Lasky, what may have worked well on the written page doesn't always translate well to the screen. In a book an author has the chance to develop characterizations through personal thoughts, introspection, and inner monologues; in a movie a screenwriter has to do it largely though dialogue, deeds, and performance. "Legend of the Guardians" has prosaic dialogue, predictable deeds, and only modest voice performances.
You may remember that director Snyder's last three films were the remake of "Dawn of the Dead," "300," and "Watchmen," in that order. "Dawn of the Dead" was an effective but cartoonish zombie flick, and "300" and "Watchmen" were actual comic books come to life. So his doing a completely animated film was hardly a giant step for him. Unfortunately, it may have been a step in the wrong direction. I mean, did he really think the audiences for his previous three adult-oriented films would follow him on an animated children's adventure, especially one as earthbound as this one?
Anyway, the plot involves a young "good" owl, Soren (Jim Sturgess), who with his brother Kludd (Ryan Kuanten) is just learning to fly. While their parents are away, the brothers test their wings, fall out their tree, and wind up helpless on the ground. Before they know it, evil owls swoop down and kidnap them, bringing them back to their headquarters. The evil owls call themselves the "Pure Ones" because they feel they are superior to all other races of owls (think of the "Master Race"), and their ambition is to subjugate the other owl kingdoms, making them their slaves. They have already conquered a number of the world's owl communities (think of Germany's Blitzkrieg of Europe) under their egomaniacal leader, Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton), who is developing a secret weapon to help him conquer the entire owl planet (think of Hitler and the atomic bomb), and they are kidnapping and brainwashing young owls to serve their cause (think of the Hitler Youth). The only thing that stands in the way of the Pure Ones attaining total world domination is a legendary race of owls known as the "Guardians," who live across the sea (think of the United States).
Soren's job is to escape the clutches of the foul Pure Ones, form a small band of followers, find the Guardians, and with their help defeat the bad guys. If it sounds like the old good-vs-evil ploy, you're right. It served J.R.R. Tolkien well enough in "The Lord of the Rings," so why not trot it out again? The only trouble is that "Legend of the Guardians" is no "Lord of the Rings," no matter how big a cast, how loud the music (David Hirschfelder), or how fabled the landscape. It simply hasn't the heart, the comradeship, the spirit, the inspiration, the romance, the scope, or the excitement of Tolkien's epic.
The whole movie is very slow, very gloomy, and for younger children, very dark and scary. When my wife was a child, the Wicked Witch in "The Wizard of Oz" terrified her. In this movie, we have evil owls slaying and torturing other owls, warrior owls fighting and killing each other, major characters dying before our eyes, and any number of really frightening images of carnage and destruction. In one of the featurettes, the filmmakers admit they weren't trying to make a children's movie, yet they marketed it that way, they clearly aimed the animated owls at children, and they designed many of the extras on the Blu-ray disc to appeal to kids. At the same time, this adult almost fell asleep during the film, and the Wife-O-Meter actually did doze off several times. So, who's the intended audience: just fans of the books?
Then there's the general clumsiness of the movie. About halfway through, at the Great Tree of the Guardians, a song breaks out that pretty much halts the adventure in its tracks and changes the tone of the picture entirely. Was this some kind of tribute to Uncle Walt or just a monumental miscalculation?
Still, despite its shortcomings, "The Legend of the Guardians" does have some good voice talents involved, even if they don't always bring their characters to life, talents like the aforementioned Jim Sturgess, Ryan Kuanten, and Joel Edgerton, plus Emily Barclay, Abbie Cornish, Miriam Margolyes, Helen Mirren, Sam Neill, David Wenham, Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, and Hugo Weaving. And, best of all, the movie has some of the most beautiful, most lush, most appealing CGI animation I've seen in any cartoon in years. For an adult, the imagery may be the best part of the film.
It's just that the visuals alone can't carry the show. It needed more soul to go with it. Where "The Legend of the Guardians" should have soared upward, it takes a dive.
In a word, the video is gorgeous. Warner engineers use an MPEG-4 codec and a dual-layer BD50 to maximize the benefits of the resplendent, 2.40:1 ratio picture. Every scene is bright, rich, and detailed, with a golden glow often bathing the image. The movie is on a par with "Avatar" for sheer visual splendor, the backdrops almost photorealistic in their grandeur. This is, indeed, one of the most beautifully animated films I've ever seen, and WB transferred it to disc as perfectly as possible.
The lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is big and full, with plenty of ambient bloom in the musical track. The surround effects are terrific, too--owls in flight, thunder, wind, rain, and voices coming at one from all directions. Just as important, we get a wide dynamic range and frequency response, a strong impact, a deep bass, and a clear, smooth midrange. If anything, the sound can be a little overpowering at times, but there is no doubt it's thrilling.
Both the Blu-ray disc and the DVD include the following two extras: "True Guardians of the Earth," a fifteen-minute look at the real world of owls, and "Fur of Flying," a Looney Tunes CGI short with Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. The rest of the extras are exclusive to Blu-ray: "Maximum Kid Mode" is a picture-in-picture affair in which Soren and the filmmakers help the viewer explore the world of Ga'Hoole with behind-the-scenes commentary and stories. "Armor Up with Soren & Eglantine" and "Match the Owl Treats" are interactive games that kids may enjoy. "Rise of the Guardians" is a two-minute segment on the legend Noctus tells his family. Then there are four artwork galleries: The Guardians, The Locations, The Villains, and Soren & Friends; plus a music video, "To the Sky," by Owl City.
In addition, the package offers a bonus DVD of the movie and a digital copy for iTunes and Windows Media (the offer expiring December 15, 2011); a beautifully illustrated and embossed slipcover for the Blu-ray case; BD-Live access; ten scene selections; English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish spoken languages; French, Portuguese, and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
The Wife-O-Meter thought that kids would love "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole," as long as they were old enough, say, over eight or nine. For this adult, however, it was only the glorious visual treats that kept me awake, the story and characters seeming pretty flat most of the time. Still, there is no denying those pretty pictures, and they go a long way toward making the movie watchable.