The awkward, overlong title should be your first clue that this ornithologically inspired adventure film is biting off more than it can cram into its animated gizzard. Adapted from three of Aussie novelist Kathryn Lasky's 15 Guardians of Ga'Hoole books, it's clear that director Zach Snyder (300, Watchmen) saw the pre-teen fantasy market as a ripe place for computer-generated stories about owls in battle armor.
The fable is textbook Joseph Campbell, following fledgling barn owl Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess) as he and his brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) are kidnapped by evil owls called the Pure Ones. Held prisoner, they meet Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton) and his wicked queen Nyra (Helen Mirren), who are turning young owlettes into laboring zombies, building a fearless owl army and, with bats as allies, constructing a terrible weapon. Kludd gives over to the dark side, but Soren escapes, and, with a team of feathered friends, seeks out the Guardians of Ga'Hoole — legendary owl warriors who fight against evil. There are unexpected betrayals, thrilling tests of courage and faith, and several Aussie thespians (Geoffrey Rush, Hugo Weaving, Anthony LaPaglia) providing voices for their barely expressive characters.
The production team that brought you Happy Feet helmed this gorgeously computer-animated adventure, producing sensational visuals and dizzying 3-D aerial stunts. It's all so incredibly lush and ripe for Snyder's stop-start slo-mo style action sequences that everything seems bigger, bolder and more thrilling than it actually is. The truth is, bombast overtakes storytelling, as screenwriters John Orloff and Emil Stern awkwardly rush through plot points to cover as much narrative ground as possible. Characters are quickly sketched, relationships are rushed along, and important details are provided in breathless exposition (if provided at all). The ultimate effect is a CliffsNotes-style story that will visually wow adolescents while it glorifies war and might-makes-right politics.
And even though Legends of the Guardians is never boring, its elaborate flight sequences and combat encounters begin to feel repetitive, never finding the joyous inventiveness that Happy Feet brought to its inspired song and dance numbers.
Snyder and his crew may give Pixar a run for their money when it comes to sumptuously realistic imagery, but they still have a lot to learn about telling a tale that sticks with you after the credits roll.
Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.