With "Legends of the Guardians," Hollywood has finally delivered a movie about anthropomorphic animals that is exciting, visually sumptuous and features nary a poop joke.
Reminiscent of Disney's attempts to deliver more serious fare with "The Black Cauldron" or Don Bluth's "Secret of Nimh" in the 1980s, "Legends of the Guardians" may be about talking owls, but don't mistake it for an avian "Happy Feet." Helmed by director Zack Snyder ("300," "Watchmen"), "Guardians" is, at heart, a fantasy-adventure more interested in high-flying battles than clever pop culture references.
Based on a series of young adult novels, the film follows Soren (Jim Sturgess), a young, idealistic owl who revels in stories about the legendary Guardians of Ga'hoole - warrior owls who fought for the weak. When Soren is kidnapped along with thousands of other owlets and made to labor for a wicked queen (Helen Mirren) bent on overthrowing the owl kingdom, it is up to him to track down the Guardians, led by noble warrior Allomere (Sam Neill), and rescue the enslaved birds.
It's a fairly straightforward adventure, but one of "Guardians'" charms is the way it celebrates cultural myth-making. No one is really sure whether or not the Guardians of Ga'hoole exist; Soren only has heard of them in his father's (Hugo Weaving) tales. But it's the hope that these stories are true that fuel Soren to find rescue. In an age where most children's films rush to ape the latest pop culture fad or a timely gag, it's refreshing to see a film that celebrates our heritage of creating heroic tales to pass down to our children.
The film feels charmingly old-fashioned, right down to the cadre of friends that accompany Soren on his journey, from a lute-playing old bird (Anthony LaPaglia) to a care-taking snake (Miriam Margolyes). It's a charming and funny group, and each character is given a distinctive personality - the crazy old bird, the motherly nanny, the gung-ho best friend. They're the character types seen in earlier animated films and children's stories, crafted with gentleness and whimsy, free of the annoying catchphrase spouting and slapstick shenanigans.
Snyder, whose work has been decidedly aimed at adults for his directorial career, makes the wise decision not to pander. He knows children can handle serious, adventurous fare and treats his audience with respect. He's not afraid to have a story full of shifting alliances, dangerous escapes and scary villains, such as this film's Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton). His cast also treats the material seriously, particularly Mirren, who is wonderful as the film's villainess. The film is pleasantly missing the manic, gag-a-minute noise of recent family fare and could almost be viewed as a gateway into more epic fantasy; once children have handled 'The Guardians,' might Harry Potter or "The Hobbit" be the next logical step?
Snyder's biggest asset has always been his visual flair. "300" and "Watchmen" have their detractors, but few could deny the visual feast Snyder reliably brings to the table. "Guardians'" photo-realistic computer images are breathtaking - every feather, drop of rain or blade of grass is meticulously crafted; only the expressive eyes give away that these are animated characters. The film's numerous flight and battle scenes are some of the most amazingly realized animated sequences I've ever seen. Snyder's love for slow motion is on full display here, but I didn't mind - it gave more time to admire the art on display.
Snyder's refusal to pander to kids, however, should provide a caution to parents. The film's battle sequences are often dark and intense for a PG-rated children's film, and it's likely that many younger viewers will view the movie's final act through their fingers. Then again, kids of the 1980s grew up with "Poltergeist" and "Indiana Jones," so maybe children are more resilient than I like to think.
But an over-reliance of battle sequences keeps the film from presenting any real depth or insight. Soren learns that the Guardians are real, of course, but is never taught to develop any unique skill of his own; his success at the end is to simply fight and defeat Metal Beak. For a film that begins with the intentions to craft an old-fashioned myth, and is filled with such ingenuity and whimsy, ending with a fight seems shallow.
I would love to pronounce "Legend of the Guardians" as a new children's classic, but missteps like that keep it just off that shelf. While the majority of the film is free of pop culture inanity, Snyder does make the mistake of resorting to a pop music montage - made all the more cringe-inducing by the fact that the music is by Owl City (seriously?). Also, the film's 90-minute runtime means the story is rushed at a few points; it's hard to keep some of the main characters straight, and some motivations and intentions are lost in the shuffle.
Still, it's rare to see a children's film showcasing this much heart, charm and ambition. The visuals alone make the film worth a look on the big screen and it's the rare time you'll hear me urge you to see a movie in 3D. Hopefully it's the start of pushing the boundaries of what a family film can actually be, and we'll see more epic fantasies and adventures for children on the big screen.
Until then, this isn't a bad flight to take.