Thursday, September 30, 2010

Legend of the Guardians: Grounded

Legend of the Guardians (2010) • View trailer for Legend of the Guardians
2 stars (out of five). Rated PG-13, and quite generously, despite considerable violence, peril and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in the The Davis Enterprise, 09.30.10
Buy DVD: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole • Buy Blu-Ray: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole (Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)

This one simply doesn't fly.

During a lifetime devoted to fantasy cinema, I've embraced flying elephants, culinary rats, harmonizing chipmunks, brave little toasters, great mouse detectives, malevolent stuffed bears, 7-foot Wookies, singing teapots, one-eyed yellow minions and all manner of robots, androids and cute furry sidekicks.

Hoping to find the legendary guardians of Ga'Hoole, Soren,
center foreground, and his new friends -- from left, Digger,
Twilight and Gylfie -- embark on a long journey across a
dangerous ocean, little realizing that they're heading
straight into a ferocious storm. (Hey, if finding guardians
were easy, everybody would be doing it, right?)
I am, to drive the point home, predisposed to tolerate  nay, embrace  such imaginative flights of fancy.

But I cannot go where this big-screen adaptation of Kathryn Lasky's Guardians of Ga'Hoole books wishes to drag me.

Indeed, "drag" is the operative word. Director Zack Snyder's Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole is a snooze; it plods along interminably during its lifeless 91 minutes.

The story, scripted by John Orloff and Emil Stern, begs, borrows and steals significant details from numerous other fantasy film and book franchises that did far better with the same material; I half expected the mentor owls to call their students "young Jedis" and warn against being seduced by The Dark Side of the Force.

Really, George Lucas should have his lawyers send a stern letter of protest.

Not having read the books on which this film is based, I don't know how much Lasky is to blame for such, ah, liberal homage. But the on-screen result is a serious case of been there, seen that ... and far too many times.

Then there's the core issue.

Realistically animated owls  and, in fairness, the animation work here is quite good  do not have faces that lend themselves to a) talking; b) emotions; or c) being distinguished from each other. Every single one of these characters attempts to convey a range of feelings with the feathered equivalent of Buster Keaton's great stone face, and it simply doesn't work.

A happy owl looks no different than a terrified owl, and they both share the same features as a thoughtful or impatient owl.

The voice acting  despite the likes of Helen Mirren, Sam Neill, Geoffrey Rush and others  can carry a scene's dramatic heft only so far; if we can't read the corresponding reactions on the owls' faces, the scene's impact is lost.

On top of which, it's extremely difficult to separate some of the key characters. Even our young hero and his brother look too much alike for ready identification during the climactic third act.

But wait, there's more: These owls wear armor into battle. Forged metal faceplates and wickedly sharp metal talons. My practical scientific side wants to know how the heck these birds can hop off the ground, let alone fly, when weighted down by these heavy fashion accessories; my snarky side wants to know how featherweight birds with claws and no opposable thumbs made this gear.

Hmm? Hmm? Do I have any takers?

Books, leaving such details to our imaginations, have a better chance at getting away with such silly concepts. Film, as a visual medium, is forced to show everything ... and "silly" is what we wind up with. How can these armored owls glance at each other, without uncontrolled hoots of laughter? They look ridiculous!

And that's nothing compared to our young hero, Soren, and his efforts to fly heroically by "trusting his gizzard." (Hand to God; I'm not making this up.) Aside from ripping off Obi-Wan Kenobi's whispered suggestion that Luke close his eyes and "trust The Force," we haven't seen birds indulge in so much inane fortune-cookie persiflage since a different set of idiots brought Jonathan Livingston Seagull to the big screen in 1973, with real birds and their voice-over, hippy-dippy dialogue.

This nonsense only makes Legend of the Guardians look foolish. The other problem is much more serious: a wholly unacceptable level of violence, mayhem, cruelty and torture. Small children at last week's preview screening were frightened and crying, and with good reason; this is a nasty story, laced with vicious characters that go after each other with weaponry that shreds and cleaves.

No, the screen isn't awash in avian blood; we can be grateful for small favors. But context is everything, and we don't need to see maimed wings or gutted gizzards to know that such carnage is taking place during the final battle scene.

I've long advocated the need for children's fiction to include elements of actual peril, the better to savor the triumph of victory. But Snyder carries it much, much too far here; the result is distasteful for older viewers, and likely terrifying for small fry.

The story, such as it is:

Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess), a young tyto barn owl enraptured by heroic tales of the "guardians of Ga'Hoole," amuses his parents and siblings by insisting that such legends are true. Alas, Soren's first encounter with mystical brethren occurs when he and his brother, Kludd (Ryan Kwanten), are kidnapped by 'pure ones' looking for fresh recruits.

Much like African war-mongers who brainwash children into becoming gun-toting thugs, these evil owls  led by Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton) and his snowy white queen, Nyra (Helen Mirren)  divide terrified newcomers into menial slaves and potential warriors. Metal Beak's goal: to conquer all owls not of their "pure" tyto type, and make soldiers out of those who are.

Kludd, apparently born a psychopath  this script doesn't even try to explain his behavior  readily embraces such malevolence. Wanting to impress Nyra, Kludd even returns to his home nest solely to kidnap his baby owlet sister, and offer her as a "gift" to the evil queen.

(This act is blatantly, cruelly manipulative on the part of Snyder and his two screenwriters. It's utterly unforgivable.)

Soren escapes in the company of a new friend, a plucky elf owl named Gylfie (Emily Barclay). They encounter two more allies: a great gray owl named Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia), with a flair for the dramatic; and a small burrowing owl  Davis readers, give a cheer!  named Digger (David Wenham).

The group's unlikely fifth recruit is Mrs. Plithiver (Miriam Margolyes), a blind snake who served as Soren and Kludd's "nest nurse" before being drafted into these far weightier doings. She functions as comic relief. And she is, at the very least, easy to distinguish from all the other characters.

But a snake? Nursemaid to owls?

Can't go there, either. (So speaks the guy who adored the St. Bernard nursemaid in 'Peter Pan.')

Anyway, Soren and his buddies eventually find the real and fer-shur Guardians of Ga'Hoole, alert them to Metal Beak's insidious plot, embrace a whole new training regimen, and then ... but that would be telling. Assuming you even care.

Snyder seems an extremely unlikely choice for this material, having previously helmed the uber-violent Dawn of the Dead, 300 and Watchmen ... which certainly explains this film's mean-spirited tone. Even giving him the benefit of the doubt, he may have tried to calm down and try for Serious And Meaningful, but he still overshot and wound up with Grim And Contrived.

And oh, yes; I can't forget ... with glazed eyes and numbed brain, midway through this mess, I leaned over to Constant Companion and muttered, "Well, at least they're not throwing some stupid song at us."

As Bill Cosby once said, in one of his classic monologues, never tempt "worse."

The words were no sooner out of my mouth, than the speaking voices dwindled into the background as an overwrought, overly orchestrated ballad-on-steroids blasted through state-of-the-art speakers, while Soren and his pals dug deep, deep, deep down into their gizzards, and struggled to learn the ways of the Force ... um, excuse me, of Ga'Hoole.


We used to hear such songs in bad Disney animated musicals. They're intended to be uplifting, but invariably elicit nothing but snickers and rolled eyes. As this one did.

I can't imagine what tone Snyder was aiming for here; his film isn't coherent enough to analyze properly. But this much is obvious; his stylistic touches are as much a misfire as the knee-jerk decision to release this flick in wholly unnecessary 3-D.

The previews for Legend of the Guardians, which we've been watching for months, didn't hold out much promise. Sad to say, Snyder's efforts lived down to my worst expectations.

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