Owls have not had the best PR lately. What with the persistently insulting blog Hungover Owls and Hedwig serving as Harry Potter's man-servant.
Lucky for the species, they now have Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, to pull up their image.
Zack Snyder directs a 3-D abridged incarnation of the first three stories of Kathryn Lasky's 15-book children's series. It is a tale of Good, the Guardians, versus Evil, the Pure Ones. The film's young hero, Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess) and his brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) are kidnapped from their hollow and taken to the barren wasteland evil finishing school of the Pure Ones' leaders Nyra (Helen Mirren!) and Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton). Having been brought up with the legend of the Guardian warriors, Soren escapes to elicit their help which brings out the owl-sized armor and battle ready flocks swooping in for the slow-motion kill.
Where the story of the Guardians lacks in verisimilitude and its painfully similarity to the plot of Avatar (the plight of the Ga'Hoole tree dwellers cum Na'vi tree of life), it makes up for in being a fulfilling excuse for 3-D. The Crouching Tiger-like rampant but pleasurable use of slow-motion and adrenaline draining near-miss fatalities of our heroes show grandiose scenes of the owl's poetically snatching up their prey. However, as an animal lover who prefers FU Penguin and the challenging moral ambiguity of Ratatouille, I am preconditioned to be critical of the cuddly, patronizing work of most anthropomorphic faire. And yet the Legend of the Guardians plays both chords for me. It both hits high Sopranos notes by taking no prisoners to tell war like it is. and plays baritone cuteness with pitch perfect costuming (note particularly the battle gear of Metal Beak) and several heartwarming owl snuggling scenes.
Despite generally following the sightless blood and guts moralizing of a lot of Disney-esq cartoon work, the Guardians is pretty gory. Surprisingly, it is the hero, Soren, who perpetrates most of the blood letting of which the movie is unexpectedly soaked in. Time Out NY calls it "kid-friendly genocide." And yet for all of Guardians kisch morality, its ability to make genocide a teaching moment is its triumph. The film's use of allegorical animals à la Aseop's Fables or Rohl Dohl's entertaining violence, pushes the boundaries of PG and early childhood education. For as Soren's father tells him: "stories are part of our culture and history. It's how we learn who we are."
Unfortunately, Guardians offering to children about why bad things happen to good owls is simply lazy social theory resting on the age old punt off: Pure Evil. The same old, same old logic here is that bad things only happen because of bad eggs - the likes of Soren's "owl gone bad" brother who joins with Evil. The cartoon spews a dictator led, state-apparatus narrative to explain away social complexities influenced by various subjective logics. This only neatly buttons up the ruff stuff of life suggesting that good vs. evil is the only way to account for why shitty things happen in the world. (Look out for Christian undertones here with such lines as "through our gizzards the voices of the angels speak to us"; "make strong the weak and vanquish the evil" and "Just because you can't see something doesn't mean it's not real.) The aesthetics of the Guardians' detailing microscopic brushes of owl's fur and the gleaming mini amour does a much better job of adding value to the grays of life as opposed to the shrill voice-over narrative.
In the end, Guardians is cinema ready. Certainly, don't miss it in 3-D. But as all seasoned, millennial theatergoers know, go for the aesthetic experience not the grander narrative.