One might think that a pitch about an animated version of “Star Wars” starring anthropomorphic owls would be rejected out of hand. But that’s pretty much what this 3D adaptation of Kathryn Lasky’s series of books is. Zack Snyder, who made both “300” and “Watchmen,” may be correct in thinking that it will have wide appeal. But though anything is possible, I seriously doubt that “Use your gizzard” will supplant “Trust the Force” anytime soon.
“Legend of the Guardians” posits a forest world populated by intelligent talking owls. Two brother birds just learning to fly—dreamer Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess), who firmly believes their father’s stories about the heroic Owls of Ga’Hoole who saved the world from evil, and his jealous, pragmatic sibling Kludd (Ryan Kwanten)—sneak out at night to practice, but are owl-knapped by the minions of the nefarious Metalbeak (Joel Edgerton) and his mate Nyra (Helen Mirren), who intend to enlist them into an army of invincible soldiers. But while Kludd embraces the wicked duo’s quasi-fascist ideology and becomes one of their so-called “Pure Ones,” Soren escapes, and along with elf owl Gylfie (Emily Barclay), makes his way to inform the Owls of Ga’Hoole of Metalbeak’s plan.
Along the way they’re joined by three comic tag-alongs: old Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia), who considers himself a bard; his twittering pal Digger (David Wenham); and Soren’s nursemaid, a snake named Mrs. P (Miriam Margolyes), who’s left the forest to search for him.
The troupe succeed in reaching the Guardians, and with the help of wise old Screech Owl Ezylryb (Geoffrey Rush), who was a hero in the first defeat of Metalbeak, convince the band to take action against him again. But a traitor in their midst will mean doom, unless Soren and his friends intervene and turn the tide of battle. Soren will also have to face his brother in wing-to-wing combat.
On the page the parallels to George Lucas’ outer-space mythology may be less apparent, but when boiled down to a bit over ninety minutes it’s crushingly obvious. Soren is a Luke Skywalker figure; Ezylryb’s injunction for him to “use his gizzard”—an unfortunate verbal choice meaning to depend on his instincts, as he does in the climactic battle—and his final encounter with his brother, which calls to mind Luke’s face-offs with his father make that clear. Ezylryb is Yoda with feathers, and Metalbeak (with a mask, even) is Darth Vader. Twilight and Digger are like an avian version of CP30 and R2D2. And one could go on almost indefinitely.
Of course, if the narrative side is impoverished, the level of visual invention is high. The backgrounds are impressive and the owls look great—though some might well object that they don’t make for the most heroic figures imaginable. The 3D effects are nicely subdued, here, with very ostentatiously few in-your-face moments. But the inclination to switch into “slow motion” during many of the action moments seems positively perverse. Perhaps the makers wanted to give us the opportunity to observe every detail of their handicraft. Unfortunately, the result is sort of ridiculous.
The voicework is excellent, with a considerable array of stars adding luster to the mix and Sturgess exuding the childish naivete Soren requires. The standout, though, is certainly LaPaglia, whose booming delivery and forlorn attempts at gravity in his musical “numbers” will probably draw the most laughs.
You have to admire the artistry of “Legend of the Guardians,” and its ambition to be something more than an average kid-friendly cartoon. But its dependence on formula undermines its drive to be different; this bird proves less rare than one would like.