We may have hit the skids, kids, when it comes to animating things of wings, fin and fur. Did we have no other choice other than turning to humorless owls in helmets? What's next? asks Kimberly Gadette. The earwig? Let us, um, prey.
Based on the 15-book young-adult fantasy series by Kathryn Lasky, Guardians of Ga'Hoole, Warner Bros announced last March that the studio was re-titling the film, due to both the exotic moniker of Ga'Hoole (rhymes with "Raul") and that pesky apostrophe that audiences have yet to embrace. And what a change it is: an 8-word string rather than 3, including the strange name, the apostrophe ... AND a colon to boot. Ladies and gents, rodents and raptors: presenting the new and unimproved Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole.
Please ignore the hooting from the rafters.
This bit of ill-advised title nonsense be-beaks, sorry, bespeaks the multiple wrong turns that fly throughout the movie. Considering the mythology of owl smarts, it's a shame that this production didn't have a few talon-ted friends on board.
Especially since the books are geared for 9-to-12 year-olds, it might have been wise to have a fairly coherent opening. Right along with the rest of the story. Instead, we get a family of owls chattering at top speed about confusing legends from long-ago. The owls all look similar, especially the two brothers – a Cain and Abel conceit – who carry the main dramatic thrust of the story. When good, younger Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess [Across the Universe, 21]) and evil, older Kludd (voiced by Ryan Kwanten [True Blood]) practice their flying techniques, they end up in a free fall, plummeting to the dangerous forest floor below. Before you can say "Hoo's got me?," they're kidnapped by a lowlife bunch of grizzled oldsters, who take them to the cavernous HQ of the "Pure Ones" run by Queen Nira (Helen Mirren).
Rapidly sinking into a nasty muddle, the movie's narrative looks at enslaved, weaker owlets who are forced to stare at the moon, giving them a case of "moon-blink." (Think baby owls, seemingly afflicted with cataracts, acting like zombies. Blending zombies with owls, couldn't we call them "zowls?") This Dickensian army is given the task of collecting "pellets" which are, in actuality, hairballs coughed up by the owls that are made from indigestible mouse parts. These pellets contain a small metal fleck at the center, à la a precious pearl inside a mollusk. The owlets dig out the fleck, proffering it to vicious bats who deposit the flecks into a huge fleckian pile. Somehow, this pile emanates lightning-like rays that will help the Pure Ones ascend to owly world domination. Why the leaders aren't outfitted in hip boots to match their helmets is a whole other question.
Will Soren and his blind nanny snake nurse (I'm not kidding) escape with his rag-tag gang and manage to survive, even as he's tossed like a meager pellet amid raging storms, flying on blind faith to Ga'Hoole? And in the third act, will the odd teapot thing that Soren's transporting in his claws be enough to stop the fleckian electro-machine from destroying all good owl-kind? Again ... I'm not kidding.
The CGI animation is quite beautiful and, as its brief history proves, 3D films illustrating flight seem to bring out the best in this technology. Zooming over seas by the light of the moon, allowing us a bird's eye view of breathtaking landscapes and magical kingdoms suspended in the air, is all superb. But a pretty picture only goes so far ... we need winning words to accompany the visual music. And rousing exhortations to listen to one's gizzard doesn't quite do it.
Perhaps with all the CGI, the filmmakers hoped that we wouldn't notice bird-brained jumps in the plot line – such as when bad bro Kludd, looking to get in good with the Queen, offers to fly back home to kidnap his baby sister, offering her up as a non-human sacrifice for the cause. Suddenly, poof!, there she is at HQ, one of a throng of moon-blinked babes in the woods. How did she get there? How did the kidnapping go? Good, we assume? Later, her terrible malady, the gl-owl-coma as it were, is tragic ... yet, minutes later, it inexplicably disappears. Talk about your fly-by-night conditions.
While director Zach Snyder (Watchmen, 300) is very much in his element with the extreme fight scenes, he's not the most kid-friendly mammal in moviedom. Further, the adapted script by John Orloff and Emil Stern is more than merely nonsensical – the writers forgot to give us engaging characters. Even the quasi-comic sidekicks strain too hard with poor material, such as Anthony LaPaglia's great gray owl Twilight, a feeble echo of Timothy Dalton's bombastic hedgehog from Toy Story 3 earlier this year.
Owls are known for their ability to rotate their heads 270º either way. But as for us humans ... this won't be the film that turns our heads around.
Rating on a scale of 5 pussycats only ... the owls just went on strike: 1.5
Release date: US: 24 September 2010; UK: 15 October 2010
Directed by: Zach Snyder
Screenplay by: John Orloff and Emil Stern
Based on the novel series Guardians of Ga'Hoole by: Kathryn Lasky
Voice cast: Helen Mirren, Geoffrey Rush, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Emily Barclay, Abbie Cornish, Ryan Kwanten, Anthony LaPaglia, Miriam Margolyes, Sam Neill, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Adrienne deFaria, Joel Edgerton
Rating: US = PG; UK = PG
Running time: 91 minutes