In the Guardians of Ga'Hoole novels of Kathryn Lasky, owls have mastered fire and metallurgy and have been known to play the lute as they sing their epic poems about epic battles in the days of yore.
And in the film about them, they all speak with Aussie accents.
Zack Snyder's film Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole is a gorgeously animated combat fantasy — The Lord of the Rings meets Happy Feet — with cute cuddly owls of every description flashing their talons and sometimes donning metal talon-tips as they battle for control of the owl kingdoms.
There's a good brother and a bad brother, a battered war hero, a steely queen and her megalomaniac mate, kidnappings, escapes, treachery and heroics. There's much talk of gizzards, as in "I'll tear out your gizzard" or "I can feel it in my gizzard" or "That's showing some gizzard."
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And there's a seer, an Australian porcupine that blurts out "it was foretold" at everything that happens.
Yes, this is a kids' cartoon as visualized by the director of 300.
Jim Sturgess voices Soren, an owl just on the cusp of "branching," learning how to fly. Kludd (Ryan Kwanten, who plays Jason Stackhouse on True Blood) is his competitive brother. They have grown up on tales of the exploits of "The Guardians:" owls who right wrongs, defend the weak and stand up to tyranny. But is their dad (Hugo Weaving) making up this legend?
"Just because you can't see something doesn't mean that it isn't real," their father lectures.
A tumble out of their tree and the brothers find out soon enough that the villains of these tales are real. Soren and Kludd are owl-napped and forced into a martial culture that is prepping for war. Helen Mirren is the queen, a Tyto (barn owl), a member of the race she calls "The Pure." She separates soldiers from pickers, who pick through owl pellets. Only the Guardians can save the owl kingdoms from this evil. Finding those Guardians becomes Soren's quest.
There's comic relief on this epic quest in the form of Digger (David Wenham from 300) and the crooning, lute-playing "warrior poet" (Anthony LaPaglia). Geoffrey Rush whimsically voices an aged, battle-scarred screech owl, and Sam Neill is well cast as a villain.
It's a dense 3-D world of immaculately detailed owls and fantastical places with exotic, hard-to-pronounce names. The flight scenes are striking in their owl-feathered glory but are not a first-person experience as in Avatar. And the fights are slow-motion mayhem, director Snyder's 300 experience brought to bear.
Ga'Hoole is a gorgeous and occasionally exciting movie that loses some of its heart and forward momentum in clutter — its laborious title included. Still, this variation on a Tolkien theme is pretty daring and more demanding than your typical film for kids. In an age of "let's all get along" pabulum, there's much to like in a cartoon not afraid to show its talons.