Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole: A Review

"There's nothing wrong with dreams."

Soren in The Legend of the Guardians:
The Owls of Ga'Hoole (2010)

I am a fan of Zack Snyder's style-above-substance sensibility in filmmaking. There's just something refreshingly dependable about an auteur who seems to never cease asking himself, "How can I blow minds with this," instead of worrying his head over what big concept he's trying to sell. The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole is another solid entry into Mr Snyder's canon of work, and I have already seen it twice.

The books it was based on has the far more compact name of The Guardians of Ga'Hoole, and it was originally what the film was called before (I presume) some nitwitted studio exec happened by and thought it needed to sound as stupid as Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. Go figure. So for everyone's convenience, I shall refer to the film simply as Ga'Hoole from this point on.

Ga'Hoole King
If your mind is going "Aww, so cute," you're in for a surprise.

Critics are polarised and are quite neatly split down in the middle in their opinions regarding Zack Snyder's maiden foray into a fully animated venture (as opposed to his other mostly animated features) but from what I can tell, the average moviegoers liked it and sometimes a lot. I understand the criticisms levelled against it and I fully agree that at its core, the film is just a standard-issue high fantasy epic told in the grand tradition of The Hero's Journey.

But with owls. Non-anthropomorphic owls. The closest example in fiction I can think of is Richard Adams' high fantasy epic novel, Watership Down, which stars non-anthropomorphic rabbits (waaay better than it sounds, by the way). The plot of Ga'Hoole offers little fodder for discussion, so I will avoid doing so. I'll focus instead on the reasons why you should see this movie,

1. It Looks Gorgeous.

Ga'Hoole The Tree and Lanterns
No kidding.

The story is set on continental Australia, judging from the presence of indigenous Australian species such Tasmanian devils and echidnas. From the stark but picturesque mountains where the bad guys hide out at to the breathtaking great Ga'Hoole tree on an island out at sea sheltering the titular Guardians and their people, the sights this film offers are near pornographic. The attention to details which the animators paid really shows, especially in depicting the kinetics of the owls' flight. I'm no ornithologist but it sure looked convincing even in slo-mo (and there's an obscene amount of slow motion in Ga'Hoole, this being a Zack Snyder film we're talking about after all). The protagonist's airborne acrobatics through a rainstorm out at sea and later, through a raging bushfire are the highlights.

2. The Fight Scenes are Awesome! The Owls are Bad Ass!

Ga'Hoole Aerial Battle
Beaks! Will! Drop!

While it's definitely not on the level of Watership Down which somehow managed to turn cute, cuddly non-anthropomorphic rabbits into awe-inspiring bad asses, Ga'Hoole managed to elevate the most adorable of predatory birds - the owls - into convincing players in yet another eternal struggle between good and evil. This is nature red in beak and claw compounded with cruel, ripping steel claw-extensions and sabres. The aerial combats are magnificent sights to behold indeed. Say what you will about Snyder's signature style of speed-ramped fight sequences, but I appreciate being able to see every slash, kick and wing beat in bullet time. It's what stopped this film's most exciting moments from turning into confusing flurries of feathers in mid air, if you ask me.

3. The Owls are Cute.

Ga'Hoole Eglantine
Here's a thousand words for you.

We are talking about birds with faces as round as the moon with eyes as big as saucers here - after penguins, you'd be hard-pressed to find another order of bird cuter. It's a bonus that the animation studio that made Ga'Hoole were the same guys who also brought you tap-dancing penguins in Happy Feet.

4. Geoffrey Rush.

Ga'Hoole Soren and Ezylryb
Our wide-eyed idealist hero, Soren, with his Obi Wan, Ezylryb.

The voice cast is star-studded with names as big as Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith, Elrond, Megatron) playing two characters, Sam Neill (Dr Alan Grant from Jurassic Park), Helen Mirren and David Wenham (LOTR's Faramir and 300's Dilios) who's in a role you'll never guess him in but you're welcome to try while watching the film. And Geoffrey Rush - Captain Barbarossa himself - stole the entire film as Ezylryb, the eccentric screech-owl mentor figure who took Soren under his wing as a student.

Ezylryb gets my vote as the most heroic character I've seen in a film this year (so far). Some of the things he said or did made the feathers on the back of my neck stand on ends. It's because of him that I'm dying to get my hands on the Guardians of Ga'Hoole novels. I want to see if his ink and paper counterpart proves to be even half as awesome as he is.

5. The Villains are Easy to Hate.

Ga'Hoole Baddies
Metalbeak and Nyra voiced by Joel Edgerton and Helen Mirren respectively.

The bad guys in the movie is an amalgam of two separate factions in the books - the St. Aegolious Academy for Orphaned Owls and the Pure Ones - and they are basically feathered Nazis under the command of Nyra and Metalbeak; the latter having a villainous, electronically-enhanced baritone to rival James Earl Jones'. They even have their own Hitler Youth.

In Summary.

This movie is not perfect. The running time of 90 minutes scarcely did the richness of the books' mythology justice, and I'm speaking as someone who have yet to read the books here. There are parts which were obviously rushed; the protagonists' journey to Ga'Hoole and their time spent there learning the different owl-arts à la Hogwarts for example. On the upside however, all that proved to be incentives for me to check out the source material. The film will find the books a whole new boatload of fans, I'm sure.

When compared to Toy Story 3 or How to Train Your Dragon, it cannot be disputed that Ga'Hoole is an inferior movie obviously targeted at a younger audience (yes, kids like violent, brutal fights in their movies) with comic relief moments intended for that age group. On the other wing, there are also surprisingly mature scenes such as when Ezylryb waxes philosophical on the reality of warfare, the nature of heroes and what doing the right thing means.

So, if you like vanilla-flavoured epic fantasies with a new twist or if amazing fight choreography in bullet time tickles your gizzards (or if you're simply just a fan of Zack Snyder) you'll find a lot to love in The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole. Kids will enjoy it. The kid in you will too, if you can locate the little squirt.

P.S. I saw it in 3D the both times I caught it and I think the quality of its extra dimension falls somewhere between How to Train Your Dragon's (whoaaaa) and Toy Story 3's (meh).

P.P.S. By the way, Owl City contributed a pretty neat song to the film's soundtrack which played during a montage centred around the um, owl city. I approve.

P.P.P.S. Tyto refers to a genus of owls encompassing all barn-owls (excepting one or two) and they belong to the family Tytonidae, one of the two families of owls. The other family is called Strigidae which funnily enough, is also called true owls or typical owls. Those wacky Nazis.

Will never look at owls the same way again,
k0k s3n w4i


Phoebs said...


Jen said...

For the next few days after I watched this movie, I annoyed David to no end by randomly pointing at him and exclaiming "WE ARE...... TYTOSSSSSS!!!!!"

Damn Sparta. At least there were no owls with 6-packs on them. I had no expectations for this movie and the graphics blew me away.


k0k s3n w4i said...

Phoebs: LYZE OF KIEL!!! D:

Jen: ha, poor david. the image of owls with six packs on them just blew my mind. anyway, both screenings i attended for this flick played to half-empty halls. i was hoping to get a little positive word-of-mouth going. DO YOUR BIT FOR ZACK!