Saturday, September 25, 2010

Movie Review: Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

Professional critics are split neatly in half in their opinion of Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole: the film is currently holding at exactly 50% on the Tomatometer.  What's more, a cursory glance at the synopses of the reviews verifies that the schism lies deep: the critics seem to either love or hate the film.

We went to the movie curious to see which side was right.  Walking out, we found ourselves in complete agreement with all of them.

Legends of the Guardians is indeed a beautiful and awe-inspiring trip into a fantasy world.  It's an exciting and thrilling viewing experience.

It's also cheap pablum; pathetic dialogue uttered by two-dimensional characters fighting to defeat Nazi-owls and to stand up for the power of dreams.

And therein we approach the common thread between these disparate points of view.  Like so many other movies being released these days, Legends of the Guardians owes a debt to the 1980's.  Sure, the novels it's officially based on were all released in the past decade, but the spirit of the movie is pure eighties.

In fact, we can think of no better description of the movie than watching the opening credits of Labyrinth in slow motion while a bottle of glitter is slowly being shaken out in front of the screen.  Play Dead Can Dance loudly in the background, and you'll have faithfully recreated the best scenes from the movie.  Play a power ballad, and you'll appreciate the depths the film can sink to.

The movie is a difficult one to reconcile.  There are scenes of utter amazement, owls soaring into battle with weapons building off their strengths and forms.  These aren't merely excellent fights: these may be the best anthropomorphic animal fights every made.

Then there's an obnoxious owl with a lute who's present for comic relief.  Actually, with the possible exception of the main character and his teacher, every protagonist who's onscreen for longer than three minutes seems to be comic relief first and foremost.  And none of them are in the least bit funny.

To their credit, all of these owls become competent when necessary, though only through the graces of a montage.

The movie was directed by Zach Snyder, making it his second adaptation in a row to feature a owl-based hero following in the tradition of his mentor.  The war, though, is pure 300.

The only thing missing from the battles is blood, a casualty of the PG rating.  This omission is somewhat striking, as the film - to its credit - isn't afraid to amass a body count.  Watching the movie, we could help but think of all the extraneous blood spilled in Zach Snyder's previous films.  If they'd used a few gallons less in 300, for example, no one would ever have missed it.  And those gallons could have been put to good use here.  Would this movie really have fared worse with a PG-13 rating?

In terms of passing judgment, we can do little but hold this against Watership Down, the pinnacle of animated anthropomorphic war movies.  The visual effects here are easily worthy of five stars, but the tragic lack of substance cuts that in half.

As such, we're giving Legends of the Guardians two and a half relative stars.  This doesn't mean it's not worth seeing, however.  Provided you accept the mind-numbing simplicity of the writing, there's plenty of spectacle to make the film worthwhile.