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'Legend of the Guardians' is one strange bird
By Dann Gire | Daily Herald Film Critic

Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess) leads the owl brigade to the rescue in "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole."

 

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Published: 9/23/2010 12:00 AM

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"Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole" is one strange bird.

It's an animated fantasy obviously intended for children, yet it depicts genocidal violence perpetrated by gladiator-like birds of prey locked in death matches high over fiery scenes of destruction representing hell on earth.

Director Zack Snyder doesn't do his feature any favors, either. He nearly kills this magnificently animated movie by shooting it with bullet-time photography.

You remember bullet-time?

That showstopping device used in "The Matrix" where Carrie-Anne Moss leaps into the air, then freezes mid-kick while the camera swings around to her opposite side before she completes planting her boot into a guy's face?

Bullet-time riddles "Legend of the Guardians" with owls flying past the camera lens, then freezing. In. Place.

Then zip!

They suddenly shoot out of the frame as if their booster rockets kicked in.

Snyder uses this cool device so often that it loses its cool. Then it just becomes distracting. And annoying.

It's almost as if Snyder thinks kiddies can't pay attention to the silver screen for very long, so he crams his movie full of slow-motion, speeded-up motion and bullet-time shots to arrest their attention.

That's on top of the already arresting 3-D format that didn't really need any help in holding viewers' interest.

The epic story - condensed from Kathryn Lasky's "Guardians of Ga'Hoole" novels - centers around two very young brother owls, Soren (Jim Sturgess) and Kludd (Ryan Kwanten).

Soren, as we keep hearing, is the dreamer and idealist who wants to do good deeds.

Kludd is the fatalist, whose troubled self-image leaves him open to corruption and seduction by dark forces.

One night the brothers fall out of their safe tree house and nearly die.

Mysterious warrior owls save them, but not really.

Kludd and Soren have been owl-napped!

They're whisked to a camp called the St. Aegolius Academy for Orphan Owls. There, they learn to be the bird world equivalent of child soldiers.

Their leader, the sleek, ultra-white Nyra (Helen Mirren), extols the virtues of being the racially superior tyto owls and how they must wipe out their competition.

Soren resists Nyra's attempts to indoctrinate him.

Not Kludd. He falls into lock-step with Nyra (providing owls can lock their steps), going so far as to serve up his baby sister Eglantine (Adrienne deFaria) to Nyra as an extra recruit.

Meanwhile, Soren gets sprung by a sympathetic guard named Grimble (Hugo Weaving) and joins the rebel forces, the mythologized Guardians, led by a grizzled warrior (Geoffrey Rush) who takes Soren under his wing.

The voice cast of "Legend" is thick with thick Australian accents. (Sam Neill, Abbie Cornish, Rush, Kwanten, Anthony LaPaglia and others are native Aussies.)

They can easily be understood, although the owls start sounding like the announcer in those Outback commercials.

The 3-D animation in "Legend of the Guardians" is the attraction here. Mesmerizing, rich, layered, textured and sensuously detailed. A night sequence of Soren and other owls winging their way through a terrible storm marks the film's finest visual achievement.

But Miriam Margolyes as a tree snake who nannys little owls Soren and Kludd?

Where did that come from?

"Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole"

Rating: ★ ★ ½

Starring: Jim Sturgess, Anthony LaPaglia, Helen Mirren, Abbie Cornish, Joel Edgerton, Sam Neill, Geoffrey Rush

Directed by: Zack Snyder

Other: A Warner Bros. release. Rated PG. 91 minutes