Flying too Far from the Sun: 'Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole' Review
Growing up, I’d seen the Guardians of Ga’Hoole book series in just about every library. It was a part of the “animal fantasy” craze of the 2000’s. If you ask any Generation Z member about what the big fantasy books of their childhood were (Harry Potter and Percy Jackson aside) you’ll get dozens of answers mentioning a range of titles from Warriors (a series of feline adventures and stories of urban cat kingdoms), the Silverwing books (an exceptionally written series about Bats and their journey of self-discovery and worth in the face of apocalyptic peril), Raven Quest (a dreadfully grim contemporary riff on Hamlet centered around a raven colony) and an innumerable amount of others. Unlike the young-adult (YA) periodic trends of wizardry to vampires to dystopian novels to God knows what else, these novels maintained a trend of consistent quality. Most of the books in the series listed above can be enjoyed on a multitude of literary levels. These books did not shy away from macabre plotlines and violent, realistic depictions of violence in the animal kingdom. I suppose that’s attributed to the fact that the authors had a level of creative freedom when it came to violence because their characters weren’t human. Thus, they could write stories for the market just below YA without having to sacrifice necessary violence or grisly plot points to keep the story PG. What resulted was a loyal child readership that connected to an innate love for animals but inadvertently were exposed to rather mature themes and more often than not, became well acquainted with heavier messages and author subtexts.
Guardians of Ga’Hoole (a series I’ve personally never read) falls perfectly into this niche of dark animal fantasy and critically speaking, was a well-reviewed series. So, when it comes to the animated adaption, a film targeted towards children but is adapted from a violent storyline, you can see why one would have reservations towards the integrity of director Zack Snyder in regards to honoring the story’s mature themes. The problem being, it’s one thing to write something down and leave the visuals up to a fair degree of interpretation, it’s another thing entirely to animate those same visuals on-screen and show them to millions of children and parents. And trust me, some of the shit in these books gets pretty grisly, so much so that I’m surprised that there wasn’t an army of parents protesting them.
As it turns out, however, the grim themes I’m so apprehensive and applauding of are the very reason this film is both terrible and surprisingly tolerable.
The story follows barn owl brothers Soren (Jim Sturgess) and Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) as they are kidnapped to the St. Aegolius Academy for Orphaned Owls. There, the powerful headmistress owl Nyra (Helen Mirren) exalts the superiority of purebred owls, raising them to be warriors in her private military. The others are consigned to menial labor collection scrap metal from rat carcasses for weapons and are never taught how to fly. As Soren witnesses the brainwashing of his brother Kludd, he escapes the Academy through his flight tutelage from Grimble (Hugo Weaving), a grizzled rebel veteran. Together, they set out to find the fabled Guardians of Ga’Hoole, an ancient owl order of divine protectors of peace and justice. With the initial set up out of the way, the film turns into a bloody clash of talon and steel as the vengeful Academy warriors raid the Ga’Hoole aviary with Soren and Kludd forced to face each other.
Just from that description, you can see where the “adult” themes become apparent. The problem is, for all of Zack Snyder’s obsession with ultraviolence and cinematic brutality, there’s a disturbing lack of it in the film. Yes, there’s fighting, but there’s no blood drawn, no animalistic ferocity, and all deaths are relatively safe in on-screen delivery. Being familiar with his work, I’m sure that’s not what Snyder may have wanted, and perhaps he signed on because of the mature subject matter he had to work with, but ultimately the child-centric audience limited his ability to go all out with barbaric animated revelry.
But at the same time, the level of violence that is present exceeds the unspoken limits of traditional kids films. For their target audience, it’s pretty graphic stuff. I know, I know, I said only a few paragraphs ago that this kind of dark material ultimately makes kids more prepared to deal with mature content, but again, imagining something in your head read off a page is different than seeing it onscreen. For whatever reason, it’s less frightening imaging the owls ravaging each other than it is seeing 3D versions do it on screen.
And despite the clichéd themes of sibling death battles and innocents caught in the conflict (Soren and Kludd’s little sister specifically), the film does do something relatively well: the animation. Even if it doesn’t commit to being an adult-minded dark children’s film but instead gets caught in a “violent but not violent enough” limbo, there’s no denying that the film is gorgeous. It seems Snyder’s years of experience stuffing CGI into his live-action products actually did him some good in this endeavor. The aerial fight sequences are a joy to view and the not-so-subtle classic Snyder imagery is, even at its most obvious, superbly rendered.
If a novel premise and an impressive color pallet isn’t enough to convince you to watch Guardians, then don’t. Otherwise, if you’re willing to take a risk with something beautiful and unconventional but thematically disillusioned, give the film a shot. In addition to the star studded cast the Snyder touch for once adds more than it takes away.