Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
In 2006, a relatively unknown film, a CGI feature that featured tap-dancing penguins, pranced out of nowhere to become a global box-office hit and awards sensation.
Happy Feet eventually went on to deservedly win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. I, for one, was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed the film. It was bright, it was funny, and it had a whole lot of heart.
Never mind that this was yet another talking-animal movie, of which there have been many mediocre ones in the last five years. As long as the script was compelling enough – a coming-of-age tale involving romance and good-natured humour – and the character design and development convincing enough, the film would work.
I was similarly surprised by Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole, a 3D film helmed by 300 director Zack Snyder, which employed the same visual effects team that had helped Happy Feet become the success it was.
Without the same cute-factor of its delightful predecessor, this film is essentially a good-versus-evil epic that pits a band of brave peace-loving folk against a tribe of war-mongering, slave-driving brutes. But with animated owls, of course – Aussie-accented talking owls, to be exact.
While the film was somewhat difficult to get into during the early going – it was hard to read facial cues on owl features at first, or discern different characters – the story really started to take off with spectacular scenes of flight and fight.
It appears that duelling owls, fitted with armour and weapons, play to Snyder’s strengths. He constructs astonishingly eye-catching fight sequences and uses strategic slow-motion to add to the tension and impact of these scenes, just as he did in 300.
The overall style, drama and high-quality visuals make this one of the best family-friendly adventure films of the year; it far outpaces the vast majority of the glossier, more-hyped CGI films out in 2010.
The plot does have some holes, the most glaring regarding to one antagonist’s flat character and sudden transformation, but that does not detract from the overriding thrill and flair of the storytelling.
Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess, of 21 fame) is a young barn owl who cares deeply for his young sister Eglatine. Older brother Kludd is impetuous and jealous of his siblings. One day, the two brothers are kidnapped and enslaved by a mysterious band.
The leader of these kidnappers is a fearsome owl known as Metalbeak (Joel Edgerton). In dire circumstances, Soren befriends Gylfie (Emily Barclay) and the two manage to escape. Meanwhile, Kludd’s aggressive nature gains Metalbeak’s approval.
There is no need to go into further detail about the story, apart from the need for the legend of noble owl warriors, the titular legend of the guardians, to be true if Soren and Gylfie, and all peaceful owls, are to stand a chance against Metalbeak’s marauders.
There are several notable names in the cast, not least Oscar winners Geoffrey Rush and Helen Mirren, plus a who’s who of Down Under cinema: Anthony LaPaglia, David Wenham, Hugo Weaving, Richard Roxburgh, Abbie Cornish and Sam Neill.
Voice-acting in a film like this works when the actors’ fame don’t get in the way. What I mean is, it is nearly impossible to discern who plays whom – that way, the actors don’t end up serving as a distraction.
Even in the space of four years, the advancements in CGI are truly astonishing. If the phenomenon of watching talking owls play out an epic for 90-plus minutes isn’t tiresome or jarring, it’s because the visuals are of a quality of much sophistication and conviction.
Judge the shadows, lighting, detail in feathers and the facial expressions for yourself, if you can be bothered. Such standards would not have been possible mere years ago.
In the end, the story and its characters matter most. While this isn’t as cute as Happy Feet, it does have its charming and light-hearted moments.
Outside of these moments, thankfully, there is also a story that makes you fear for the safety of good owls, hoot – I mean root – for their success, and feel dread and disdain for the bad owls. It’s all a pleasant surprise, the way tap-dancing penguins once were.
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.