Soren, a young barn owl, is kidnapped by owls of St. Aggie's, ostensibly an orphanage, where owlets are brainwashed into becoming soldiers. He and his new friends escape to the island of Ga'Hoole, to assist its noble, wise owls who fight the army being created by the wicked rulers of St. Aggie's. The film is based on the first three books in the series.
As the Harry Potter franchise does for the British acting fraternity, the extensive voice cast of the snappily titled Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole is a pay cheque bonanza for Australian thespians: everyone from Bill Hunter to Abbie Cornish gets their wings. In a story adapted from the first three books of American author Kathryn Lasky’s fantasy adventure series (there are 15 in total), the actors portray a cross-section of a medieval owl society where, as is so often the way, good can only triumph over evil with the aid of a young, uncertain adolescent. There is much wind beneath these wings.
Moments into the movie, which doesn’t waste time getting to both the setting of themes and archetypes, it’s apparent that dreamy optimist Soren (Jim Sturgess) is going to experience a winged Cain and Abel narrative with his brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten). When the two sneak out of the family nest to practice their flying they are soon kidnapped by soldiers of the Pure Ones, your basic Nazi owls – militaristic, dictatorial, obsessed with racial purity – and press-ganged into service at a spooky aerie that the group’s scarred leader, Metalbeak (Joel Edgerton), may have picked up at the Mordor garage sale.
Soren falls in with the diminutively cute Gylfie (Emily Barclay) and the pair looks to escape their looming life of slave labour, but Kludd is soon a soldier advanced by Metalbeak’s cruel mate, Nyra (Helen Mirren). When Soren and Gylfie escape they go looking for the Guardians of Ga’Hoole, a noble alliance of owls whose good deeds they only know of through their father’s bedtime stories. Of course if you think the Guardians can solve this crisis without the intervention of Soren, then you haven’t watched any of the numerous hero myth adventures that have tread this path since Star Wars.
Guardians was created by the Australian production house Animal Logic (Happy Feet), and aside from the voice cast some of the early landscapes have a particularly Antipodean design. But the director is American Zack Snyder, who is better known for the R-rated visual extravagance of 300 and Watchmen. Perhaps he was called upon because of the inherent violence of the work – these owls fight with metal talons and wear armour into battle – but all he does is make for an unsettling version of a PG release, although it was good to see that his directorial trademark of speeding up into an action sequence and shifting down to slow motion midway through for a contemplative beat plays as well with owls as Spartans.
The detail of various owls’ plumage and their iridescent eyes are thoughtfully beautiful, and it’s a pleasure to watch the numerous digital close-ups with their expressive faces, but there’s only so many times you can watch the protagonists being chased by their foes or buffeted by a storm. Life at Ga’Hoole, with its Hogwarts-like rituals, is glossed over, although there is time for Soren to meet the ageing Ezylryb (Geoffrey Rush), who authored the tales of – and perhaps fought in – the legendary battles the naïve young owl grew up hearing.
Ezylryb cautions Soren that the reality of battle is anything but heroic, but the final scenes suggest otherwise as the deceitful Pure Ones and the Guardians face off – there haven’t been so many sharpened claws seen since All About Eve. Brisk as it is, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (it just rolls off the tongue) is ill-balanced between a younger and older children’s audience. Its unexpected harshness wipes away the appeal of well wrought fantasy. And while it’s another film where animals assume human personalities and characteristics, those with an affinity for mice should stay away. They remain food of choice for the various owls and regurgitating their compacted remains is a rite of passage. There’s a metaphor about filmmaking in that.