*Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (PG)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
As fascinating as it's been to watch feature animation emerge from its near-comatose state 20 years ago to become a box-office powerhouse, innumerable small nuisances have accompanied its resurgence. There's the frustrating sameness of the "just learn to believe in yourself" plotting; there's the now-obligatory use of 3-D. But Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole brings to mind a complication that often gets ignored: the determination to make "animated" a synonym for "kid-friendly."
From a financial standpoint, that development is easy to understand. Quality animation can be ridiculously expensive to produce, and failing to target the family audience is like burning a room full of money. But while the Kathryn Lasky book series that inspired Legend of the Guardians is aimed at young readers, director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) has taken it visually in a direction that feels more like The Lord of the Rings. Despite some exceedingly familiar genre elements, it proves compelling because it doesn't do everything you expect an animated feature to do.
Snyder and screenwriters John Orloff and Emil Stern adapt portions of the first three Ga'hoole books in this tale of an owl-populated world in which a youngster named Soren (Jim Sturgess) is just learning to fly. On an ill-advised adventure outside the nest, Soren and his brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) are kidnapped and taken to St. Aegolius' Orphanage, where they are put to work finding mysterious, powerful "flecks" for an unknown purpose. When Soren and his new friend, the elf owl Gylfie (Emily Barclay), manage to escape, they seek out the legendary owls of Ga'hoole, said to be devoted to battling injustice.
Lasky's books are fairly dark, so it's no surprise to see Snyder follow suit. But this adaptation places a stronger emphasis on the motives of the evil owls of St. Aegolius — led by the barn owls Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton) and Nyra (Helen Mirren). As Soren prepares for what he believes will be noble war, he's corrected by his grizzled veteran mentor, Ezylryb (Geoffrey Rush): "It's not glorious, it's not beautiful, it's not even heroic. It's just what's right."
That's a fairly sophisticated approach to de-mythologizing battles of good vs. evil, and Snyder backs it up by making his battle sequences brutal and, at times, chaotic. He employs his pet stylistic tic of hitting the slow-mo button during those battles, which makes them easier to digest for younger viewers, but also makes it clear that these are birds slicing into each other with metal-tipped battle claws. Throw in a particularly gorgeous use of 3-D, and you've got yourself something that's thoroughly immersive during its most intense moments.
None of which is to avoid the obvious: When it comes to epic fantasy, we've been here and done that for a whole lot of it. The brave young owl quartet joining the apocalyptic fray becomes akin to the hobbits of this particular adventure, and many of the other characters take on archetypal roles from other similar tales. By the time we reach a climactic scene that could inspire eye rolling for its echoes of Star Wars' fanfare finale, it could be easy to forget that the strong voice performances and the character design have led to a slightly more complex narrative experience. It's not bad for kids; it's just not really kid stuff.