Before embarking upon “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole,” somebody should have given more thought to the fact that it’s really hard to tell owls apart. Especially when they’re flying. This is just one of many reasons it’s difficult to engage with this elaborate animated 3D adventure fantasy, which goes through all the motions of trying to create an owl-world mythology but, despite a stellar vocal cast, ends up feeling like a pale rehash of so many similar kid-friendly ventures that have come before. Zack Snyder’s fans will be hoping he gets back to more heavy duty action in short order.
It’s something that most people have not spent excessive time pondering, but apparently even owls, who rate quite high in the feathered scheme of things in terms of survival instincts and predatory skills, have their own aristocratic pecking order. And their own legends, such as they are. Unfortunately, from the opening scene, in which some of this gets laid out, I started checking out, so undifferentiated is this yarn from the countless other myth and legend tales constantly served up in the hopes of sticking with young readers and moviegoers, who periodically turn them into goldmines for their creators.
This one features handsome brother owls who are kidnapped and taken to an evil land presided over by an owl named Metal Beak who’s got Hitlerite purity issues and intends to conquer an island of peace-loving souls. Said island is dominated by an enormous tree virtually identical to the one that was destroyed by Earthlings in a rather popular film that came out nine months ago.
One brother escapes and stays good while the other brother remains with Metal Beak and goes bad, leading to an inevitable climactic confrontation. There’s a raft of supporting owls with different featherings and plummages, but I could never understand their names and neither could my son, no matter how impeccably they were pronounced by the wonderful group of largely Australian actors, including Helen Mirren, Jim Sturgess, Sam Neill, Abbie Cornish, Joel Edgarton, Geoffrey Rush,, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten and Bill Hunter, among many others.
The animation and 3D work are very good but nothing feels fresh. The screenwriters who tackled Kathryn Lasky’s novels “Guardians of Ga’Hoole” are both serious scribes—John Orloff wrote “A Mighty Heart” and part of “Band of Brothers,” while Emil Stern penned “Tenderness” and “The Life Before Her Eyes”–but that may be part of the problem, as the film presents the perils of the owl universe with a gravity that outweighs the project and the intended audience. There’s not a single surprise here except, perhaps, for one line of dialogue the good brother utters to summon some self-confidence: “Just once I need to trust my gizzard.” I should certainly hope so.