I can only imagine the man-hours that went into deciding the final configuration of the title "Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga'Hoole," and in the end, no matter what order you put all that information in, the two things that really pop are "Guardians" and "Ga'Hoole."  And in Zack Snyder's finished film, the Guardians of Ga'Hoole are indeed fairly memorable, a major part of the film's appeal.  This is an interesting film for Snyder, and I suspect it will open up a whole run of animated films of all ratings by the filmmaker, because he has taken to the medium with uncommon grace.  Not every live-action director automatically makes a good animation director, and vice-versa.  They're very different skill-sets, and I'm not sure most live-action directors even understand how different the process is.

Snyder, though, is such a visual artist to begin with, and he puts his signature on this film from the very first shot, when the company logos are still onscreen, and a feather comes loose from the owl that flies by, and for a moment, that lone feather speedramps down to slow motion, hanging there, somewhere between the screen and the audience thanks to the crystal clear 3D, before time speeds up again and the logos continue.  For a guy who has such clearly defined visual tics and fetishes, Snyder has a good sense of humor about it.  He seems well aware of what he's known for, and he revels in it.  In some ways, this film is the ultimate Zack Snyder film so far, even without any nudity or gore, because it's the first time he's told a straight rendering of what he's said before is his favorite story.

Like many people of around his age, Snyder has frequently cited "Star Wars" as a major inspiration for him and his favorite film, and that affection is more than evident in the screenplay for "Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga'Hoole," adapted by John Orloff and Emil Stern from the books by Kathryn Lasky.  There is a streamlined simplicity to the way it lays out the ideas of myth and legend and hero worship in the opening moments, then quickly finds a way to knock Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) and his younger brother Soren (Jim Sturgess) out of their nest, sending them on an unexpected adventure when they are abducted by much larger owls and flown away to a stronghold where an army of owls is being assembled in an effort to prepare for a race war.  "The Pure Ones" are headed by the menacing Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton) and his mate Nyra (Helen Mirren), and they are prepared to do anything to subjugate all the lesser owls.  Soren and a new friend named Gylfie (Emily Barclay) escape Nyra, but Kludd refuses his chance to join them.  He likes the message of the Pure Ones, and he believes in what they're doing.  And, more importantly, Nyra plays to Kludd's fragile ego.  Soren and Gylfie make some other friends along the way like the eccentric comic relief Digger (David Wenham) while they search for the possibly-mythical Guardians of Ga'Hoole, determined to bring them to stop the Pure Ones.

Basic stuff, and you've seen it before.  What distinguishes "Legend" is simple:  it's gorgeous.  There's a charming low-key energy to the voice cast, and making them largely Australian gives the film a less-homogenized flavor.  Ultimately, though, it's the remarkable world and the sophisticated character animation that has been brought to the realization of these characters that makes "Legend" worthwhile.  Yes, it's a world filled with nothing but owls, but Animal Logic has given these creatures a real sense of flesh-and-blood heft.  It's amazing work, and the film feels like a Disney movie made by Frank Frazetta.  I have every confidence that it will be warmly well-received by young adventure fans, and that a lot of parents are going to feel very good about having taken their kids to see it.  It's scary but just scary enough.  It's dark but just dark enough.  It's accessible to kids, but it's not juvenile.  Overall, it seems to strike a lovely balance.  And once again, as with "Avatar" and "How To Train Your Dragon," flight in 3D proves to be almost hypnotic.  I'd say at this point, those three films represent some of the very best we've seen of stereo filmmaking, and in every one, the effect is used to simulate the sensation of flight.  Interesting.  Not sure what it means, but it's interesting.

This may not appeal to every Zack Snyder fan, but I think it will win him some new young fans, and more than that, I hope it has inspired the director to now consider animation as a viable way to tell certain stories, no matter what the rating, because he's certainly got a knack for using animation the right way.

"Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole" opens everywhere Friday.

 

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