Friday, October 1, 2010

Epic Owl Adventure - LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS - Reviewed!


- Legend of the Guardians is, first and foremost, an amazing movie to look at. Featuring incredibly-rendered animal characters, and directed with stylized flair by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), this is easily one of the most visually-captivating movies I've ever seen. But, the film is such a visual showcase that the narrative, while sweeping and epic, sometimes seems to take a backseat. It's Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and The Chronicles of Narnia mashed together - with owls - and the result is a story that touches a lot of familiar high-fantasy tropes, but also feels a bit rushed and a bit *too* familiar. Still, the sheer visual punch of the film, combined with some genuinely cool character and story beats, are enough to make this one deserving of a hearty recommendation. On the big screen, the movie makes an impact, and is, oftentimes, simply breathtaking to behold.

The story of the movie is complex and busy, but it's also a mashup of a lot of very familiar character archetypes and mythic conventions. Basically, in the movie's mythical, magical world of talking animals, there is an amassing army of an evil owl empire who seem like a cross between the Nazi's, the Empire from Star Wars, and Sauron's forces from LOTR. The army, known as the Pure Ones, are led by a scary warmonger who wears an iron mask to hide his deformed face (like an owl Dr. Doom). Rumors of their rise are spreading throughout the owl kingdom, and the rank-and-file owls have no one to turn to except for old legends about a bunch of really awesome owl heroes known as The Guardians (basically the Owl version of Jedi, except they don't seem to have any particular powers except for being really badass). Our main character, Soren, is kidnapped and taken prisoner by the Pure Ones, along with his hothead brother and younger sister. While his brother is slowly being turned to the dark side by the frosty queen of the Pure Ones (shades of Narnia), Soren escapes and goes on a quest to find the Guardians, so that they can help put a stop to the Pure One's sinister plans to conquer and enslave all of the other owls.Along the way there's goofy sidekicks, the old warrior who has to don his armor for one last battle, and even some owl-on-owl romance. Again, a lot of it is pretty familiar to anyone who's seen Star Wars or LOTR or what have you, but when matched with the incredible visuals, the story is made to feel relatively fresh given how unique the accompanying visual element is. It's the kind of thing where, if you happen to be a ten year old boy with as-of-yet limited exposure to fantasy fiction, you just might walk away from this one thinking you've just seen the greatest movie ever made.

The voice cast is also pretty good, with a couple of key contributions from noted British thespians. Helen Mirren, for one, is great as the Pure One's evil queen Nyra. In a performance that brought to mind that of Tilda Swindon in The Chronicles of Narnia, Mirren makes for a great villain. On the other end of the spectrum, Geoffrey Rush is likely the movie's biggest scene-stealer as a legendary Guardian warrior who mentors Soren and gets to kick some serious ass despite being over the hill. Is the character sort of cliched? Maybe. But hearing Rush bellow his lines with ridiculous amounts of gravitas made for some pretty badass moments of undeniable awesomeness.

One sort-of-frustrating thing about the movie, though? The ultra-detailed CG makes it pretty hard at times to actually distinguish between the characters. The animators clearly put in some key "tells" to better recognize which character is which, but still, it can get a litle confusing.

Speaking of those visuals ... again, they are incredible. The sheer detail in the characters is astonishing, and every feather, every texture, every gesture, is rendered with eye-popping artistry. Some of the backgrounds are similarly amazing. When we travel to some of the animal cities in the movie's world - vast structures filled with grand architecture and teeming with soaring owls and other creatures - well, it's easy to just get lost in this universe. It's one case where IMAX and 3D only help to add to the full-immersion factor.

What takes the visuals to an even higher level is the direction of Snyder. Say what you want about the guy, but he has an eye for creating crazy scenes of sensory overload like few others working today. And man, this may have been marketed as more of a kids' movies, but Snyder loads up Legend of the Guardians with some truly epic and surprisingly brutal action scenes. There are lots of intense scenes of claw and talon-induced violence, and all of the action is choreographed with a true flair for the dramatic. There's a lot of Snyder's trademark stylization (his trademark slow-down / speed-up camera move, for example), and it's interesting to see a director with such a signature visual style bring that same technique to the world of animation. I don't know if I've ever seen an animated film that fits so neatly into the cannon of its director's live-action catalog.

I really did enjoy the film, but despite all of the visual splendor and cool action, the plot was just too messy and rushed for this one to be something truly special as a whole. In some ways, it felt like three movie's worth of plot was crammed into this film's 90 minutes. You never truly feel like you're watching an epic quest unfold, because everything happens so fast, and all of the big story beats come fast and furious with minimal build-up. It really ends up undermining the stakes of the film, making the bad guys seem weak and the Guardians not-so-legendary. You miss out on all the slowly-building gathering-of-the-troops scenes from LOTR, or the long-simmering character arcs of Star Wars. Everything in the movie happens super quick, so you don't get as invested in the characters or the plot as much as you should in a movie like this. Plus, events unfold so rapidly that it creates the feeling that the characters are just sort of moving from Point A to Point B.

I'd definitely recommend checking this one out though, even if only to see a new bar set in CG animation. The story is familiar but fun, and the action is badass. Legend of the Guardians is further confirmation that Zack Snyder is one of the most dynamic directors working today.

My Grade: B+

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