I spent a decent chunk of time on the Warner lot this afternoon, for more than one purpose, and at one point, I found myself standing, stretching my legs, ten free minutes to myself for the first time since waking up, having a Jamba Juice. 

It was hot today in Burbank but not punishing.  At least not on the lot, where there was a constant breeze.  Some scoring session must have just let out, because there were people walking past me carrying instrument cases large and small.  Lots of them, chatting, off work and on their way home.  It was just after 4:00, and I had three more things to do by 6:30, so I was enjoying the sort of brain-off disconnect.

Amidst the musicians, I saw a few people walking toward me, and it was one of those moments where you see them out of focus at first, and there's something vaguely familiar, and then as they get closer, something in the way someone moves, or some distant raised voice that you catch just a hint of sets off some alarm, and you look closer.  Do I know this person?  Or these people?

And sure enough, it was Zack Snyder, his wife and producer Deb Snyder, and their producing partner Wesley Coller, three familiar faces in a row.  They were one of the reasons I was on the lot, and by "they," I mean there was a "roadshow presentation" today on the lot for their new film together, "Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga'hoole".  It's a 3-D animated adventure epic... starring owls.  Lots and lots and lots of owls.  As Deb Snyder pointed out later in the afternoon, the first "Star Wars" is still Zack Snyder's favorite movie, and that journey that Luke Skywalker makes, as he learns of his own innate power and he takes his first steps into the larger world... that's the journey that drew Snyder to react to the Kathryn Lasky novels in the first place, and that's the journey you'll find underlining the visually stunning movie that Warner will release September 24 of this year.

Now, that's not me saying that the movie's going to be a great movie... only way to know that is to see it.  But after the 20 or so minutes we saw today on the Warner Bros. lot, I think it's absolutely safe to say that it will be one of the most visually spectacular films of the year.  Snyder has embraced both animation and 3-D with the same sort of kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm I've seen from him in every single conversation I've ever had with him about something he was making.  Since the first time I went in and saw early rough footage from "300," he has always struck me as someone who loves what he does and who genuinely enjoys every step of the process.

When I ran into the three of them before the presentation, they were already revved up and ready to start talking about it.  They're also prepping for the "Sucker Punch" panel next week, so they're pretty much the textbook definition of "busy" right now.  And when I finally sat down about an hour later for the presentation in the upstairs screening room, Zack was right there in the front row with his own 3-D glasses on, ready for the show just like everyone else.

The presentation opened with a montage that's basically a slightly more detailed version of the trailer for the movie, and even in the trailer, you get a sense of just how densely realized this world is in this film, and how gorgeous the character work on the owls really is.

The rest of the presentation consisted of Zack introducing individual scenes from the film, and talking us through what felt like a lot of the story even though after the last clip, he said he'd only really gotten us to about the halfway point in the film.  The first scene set up the basic dynamic between the two brothers whose stories drive the film.  There's Soren, voiced by Jim Sturgess, and there's Kludd, voiced by Ryan Kwanten, and they're fundamentally different types.  Soren's a dreamer, in love with the stories he's been hearing his whole life about the Guardians of Ga'hoole, and Kludd believes in dealing only with what's in front of him, dismissive of the stories and of his brother and his belief in them.

A tussle while they're trying to learn to fly ends up with the two of them on the ground, a place no Owl ever wants to be, and then kidnapped by much larger and more aggressive owls wearing battle armor.  They meet another kidnapped owl, Gylfie, voiced by Rachael Taylor, all of them confused about what's happening to them.

Another scene featured Nyra, the main bad guy in the film, given appropriate ice and fire by Helen Mirren.  She is the Queen of the Pure Ones, a particular clan of Owls who have decided to assemble an army so that they can subjugate the rest of the Owl world, bending them all to the will and the whim of the Pure Ones.  Nyra runs a training exercise with some of the newly kidnapped owls including Kludd.  He turns out to be a natural, powerful and fast, and Nyra decides she wants to test his brother to see if he's just as good.  This scene, like the kidnapping before it, really made use of 3-D to establish space and also velocity.  It's a very powerful use of the tool, and it really underscored for me just how much better 3-D works in animation.

While Nyra tests Kludd, Soren and Gylfie are working under the supervision of Grimble (Hugo Weaving's dulcet tones, soothing as always), who is trying to get them to actually fly.  Gylfie seems to be having a lot of trouble with it, and instead of a lesson, Grimble starts to tell them how they're going to have to leave and go find the Guardians of Ga'hoole (who Grimble says absolutely are real, no matter what Kludd believes) and bring them back to stop the Pure Ones from building their army.  In the middle of him telling them this plan, Nyra shows up with Kludd, and a vicious fight ensues.  Grimble buys some time, and tells Soren and Gylfie that they have to fly.  They have to go get help.  Grimble turns out to be a bit of a badass, really stopping Nyra in her tracks at first.  It's a really well-staged sequence, a rough fight.  Kludd, given a chance to flee with his brother and with Gylfie, makes the conscious decision to stay and fight for Nyra.  It's a pivotal moment as the brothers choose opposite sides in whatever lies ahead.

Hey, look... owlets!

 

 

Cute, aren't they?

There is certainly an element of cute that is part of the film, but it feels like they're trying very hard to keep things from getting too cute.  The next major character introduced in the clips, Digger, could easily turn into too much of a good thing, but my first impression is that the slightly unhinged vocal work by David Wenham and the crazy facial tics of Digger are a pretty winning combination.  Digger joins Gylfie and Soren on their search for the Guardians, which is evidently the way a chunk of the film is structured, one owl at a time joining them until it's a total of five of them who finally end up traveling together.

The next big sequence involved Soren and Gylfie finally finding the place where the Guardians live, and just barely.  They are carried the last little bit of the way, exhausted and soaked.  The tech nerd in me was watching clips like this and marveling at the way the water particle stuff was working, the ways the feathers and the light and the wind were all interacting.  I thought it was dazzling, to such a degree that I almost found myself distracted, fixating on all the little flourishes, all the things that made it so much richer and more real than anything turned out yet by the Zemeckis animation team, so much more substantial than the sort of thing you typically see in films like the "Shrek" series or the "Ice Age" films.  They don't even flirt with what is "real" in those films, whereas the character designs that are being used by Animal Logic for this film are all based on real owls, carefully exaggerated for the sake of performance, but never to the point of making them look like anything but owls.

 

 

Soren and Gylfie are taken in front of Boron (Richard Roxburgh) and Barran (Deborra-Lee Furness), the rulers of the Guardians, and they tell them what they've seen.  It takes some convincing and some debate, but Soren's heartfelt sincerity finally seems to break through their reserve, and they dispatch owls to try to find the Pure Ones.  Soren and his friends are given sanctuary and they're able to further their training under the stern tutelage of Ezylryb (Geoffrey Rush), who has some secrets that he finally shared with Soren in one of the last full scenes we saw.  Whether it's a big action scene or a quiet character moment, the characters here seem incredibly expressive, capable of being big and broad or very subtle, depending on the moment.  Before the quiet heart-to-heart, though, Ezylryb tests Soren in the air during a storm, and this was, by far, the highlight of the presentation for me.

Flying in a storm isn't the same as flying in clear weather.  It's more like surfing, finding the new currents, the holes in the weather, using those things instead of fighting them, and as they all attempt to follow Ezylryb through the storm, he sees that it's Soren who seems to be catching the hang of it.  He pushes him to go further, and there's a moment where Soren suddenly sees the storm in front of him, finds a space in it, rides this crazy curling current, eyes closed, trusting his gizzard to steer him.  It was, simply put, one of the most beautiful things I've seen in a film this year, and in 3-D, there was a real sense of finding that space between raindrops, of dropping into a pocket.  It was a lovely example of a film's hero finding his calling, handled as a visual idea instead of a chunk of exposition.

 

 

If all of Snyder's film can live up to what we saw today, then I think they've made something really brave and different and exciting.  Talking to Deb Snyder afterwards, she talked about how the process of working on this film that was designed from day one to be in 3-D was directly responsible for the now-final decision to not release "Sucker Punch" in 3-D next year.  That conversion simply doesn't make sense to the Snyders based on the color palette of "Sucker Punch," based on that film's specific visual language.  It just wasn't designed for it, wheres "Legend Of The Guardians" is something that uses the 3-D to communicate character and to heighten suspense and immersion.  It works because it is real 3-D, not an afterthought.

It was a lovely introduction to the world of Ga'hoole, and I look forward to taking Toshi to see it this fall.  Even without that excuse, I'd be including this on my must list for the year because of the amazing artistry on display.  If this is what animation means in the hands of Zack Snyder, then I hope it's something he continues to pursue in the future.  And Animal Logic looks like they're making a play here, proving just how far they've come since "Happy Feet."  Impressive, to say the least.

"Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga'hoole" will be in theaters September 24.

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