Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole Review

poster from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Legend of the Guardians

I have a theory that whatever form I see a story in first, that’s the one I prefer. If I’ve read the books, the movie won’t measure up. If I’ve seen the movie, the book’s just not as good (even if it was the story’s original form). I decided to test this theory on Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, because although the books were pretty good, I thought they’d make a better movie. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Guardians of Ga’Hoole books or the movie version, here’s the lowdown:

A young barn owl gets kidnapped by an order of evil owls who want to take over the world using an army of brainwashed owlets, but he escapes and bands together with a group of other orphans to find the mythical Guardians of Ga’Hoole and help free the others.

This covers the first four books in Kathryn Lasky’s Guardians of Ga’Hoole series (they’re very short). As you know if you’ve been following my blog, I’ve been looking forward to this film for months. Did it measure up to my admittedly high expectations? Yes and no.

The thing with cramming four books worth of story (even four short books) into one kids’ movie is that a certain amount of compression has to occur. As you squeeze, you scrape off all the extra material that squirts out the sides, but you have to be careful, because sometimes this material is connected to something else that didn’t get squished out, and if you cut it off you end up with a story that’s got little truncated subplot stumps inside it. This happened, to a certain extent, in The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.

Soren carries fire from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Legend of the Guardians

“Yeah… it’s just… there’s fire there, okay? And he can use it. Never mind how he knows that.

Writers John Orloff and Emil Stern did their best, I’m sure, but the script that they produced definitely could have been tighter. Obviously the main plot is about Soren (Jim Sturgess) and how his obsession with his father’s stories of the legendary Guardians of Ga’Hoole helps him in his quest to bring down the evil owls in the Order of St. Aegolius, so he had to stay. Likewise Soren’s jealous older brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) needed to stick around too so he can fall under the spell of Nyra (Helen Mirren) and the Order’s ideas about racial purity and power.

Kludd with Soren and Eglantine from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Legend of the Guardians

I hate stories… unless they involve me being better than you.

Soren’s best buddy Gylfie (Emily Barclay) needed to stay so Soren wouldn’t be talking to himself for half the movie, and Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia) had to be in it because he’s huge and they need him for fight scenes. But as cute as Digger (David Wenham) the burrowing owl, Mrs. Plithiver (Miriam Margolyes) the blind snake, and Otulissa (Abbie Cornish) the snotty Guardian trainee are, the writers struggle to find things for them to do because they had to cut out all the parts in the books where they’re important.

Digger the burrowing owl from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Legend of the Guardians

“But he’s soooooooo cute!” protests everyone, when the writers suggest Digger be cut

They’ve also had to severely truncate the goals of big bad guy Metalbeak (Joel Edgerton) and his St. Aegolius minions. In the book their whole Nazi-esque purity hierarchy was based around the scientific classification of owls (Kathryn Lasky was originally going to write a non-fiction book), with Barn Owls (Tyto Alba) as rulers, other Tyto-type owls (Sooty, Masked, etc.) as their underlings, and all other owls (Horned, Snowy, etc.) as their vassals/slaves. Obviously they couldn’t explain all that in a movie without a huge exposition dump, so the St. Aegolius owls just go on about ‘Tytos’ being ‘pure,’ implying Tyto only meant barn owl but failing to mention why their retinue included other types of owls too.

the pure ones from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Legend of the Guardians

we’re counting on you to think that all owls look pretty much the same anyway

The movie also seems less epic than the trailers (which featured the 30 Seconds to Mars song “Kings and Queens”) lead me to believe it would be. This is probably because the actual score (by David Hirschfelder) is peppier than “Kings and Queens,” and all the trials and tribulations on Soren’s epic journeys had to be cut out to save time. So it seems like they set out on an impossible journey and get there five minutes later.

Soren sees a Guardian from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Legend of the Guardians

There’s the ocean… 10 seconds of storm, and BAM! There they are!

So these little blips of less-than-ness in storytelling were a little annoying (maybe I wouldn’t have noticed them if I hadn’t read the books?) but I was still totally right about it making a better movie, because the visuals are astounding. Kathryn Lasky’s world is fantastically detailed, so the animators had a lot to work with. Owls in metal masks, living in a giant hollowed-out tree, the mysterious ‘flecks’ with their gizzard-altering powers, and navigating the swirling air currents inside a hurricane are all better to see than read about.

the Guardians of Ga'Hoole council from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Legend of the Guardians

And now we will convene our council of epic coolness

Zack Snyder’s small army of animators rendered every ripping feather, rain drop, and ray of light in actual, fully rounded 3D. It’s so engrossing that sometimes you forget that there’s a story there at all.

the Barrens from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Legend of the Guardians

ooooooooooooooooooh ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

The owls wear masks and metal claws to go into battle, swooping and slashing at each other with their wings spread wide, and it looks SO COOL. Zack Snyder makes sure to slip into slow motion at all the right moments and give us lots of wide shots, so we don’t suffer from the headaches that Paul Greengrass style battles cause.

an owl attacking from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Legend of the Guardians

I never knew battle could be so artistic

So what’s the verdict? Both the movie and the book are equally good. Read the books. See the movie. It doesn’t matter if you can’t borrow a kid to use as a shield, Legend of the Guardians: the Owls of Ga’Hoole is old school, like The Chronicles of Narnia, where there’s violence and killing, not new school, like Despicable Me with all the bloopey sound effects and everyone seeing the error of their ways in the end. It’s super cool, even if it didn’t quite make it all the way to awesome.

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