The American summer movie season is finally over – and what a mediocre spectacle it has been. Hollywood seems, with a few notable exceptions like Inception, to have lost its focus.
Now we get a masterpiece that could challenge those animation blockbusters in the Oscar race. Legend of the Guardians is so powerfully told and so richly drawn and designed, that it marks a milestone in the evolution of feature-length animation.
The film is based on a series of popular youth books by Kathryn Lasky. There are 17 short tales that were published under the general label: The Guardians of Ga’Hoole.
There are no humans: all the main characters are owls who live in forests close to an ocean.
At the risk of sounding facetious, I would describe this film as The Lord of the Rings for owls, because it tells the story of a band of small young owls who must face many perils in order to reach the legendary "Guardians", the great heroic owls of past generations.
The story begins with a family of owls, headed by Noctus (Hugo Weaving). He has been teaching his three owlets, Soren (Jim Sturgess), Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) and their young sister, Eglantine (Adrienne DeFaria), the tales of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole.
It is a myth about a remote island on which there is a great tree that is the stronghold of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole, the confederacy of legendary owls that rules the forests.
Big, complex literary themes of honour and valour are woven through the chronicle. On one level it is a retelling of the Cain and Abel story. Soren, the obedient youngster who will fight to protect his family and their legacy, clashes with his brother Kludd, who is aggressive and jealous of his younger brother’s goodness and loyalty. Kludd soon becomes Soren’s sworn adversary as he tries to gain power in the owl community.
Eglantine adores Soren, but is scared of Kludd. Their attributes and weaknesses are exposed when the siblings are taught to fly. Kludd is headstrong, reckless and wild. He wants to be first and also the fastest flyer, while Soren takes the time to help the smaller Eglantine.
The brothers’ rivalry turns into hostility, which divides the family. When Kludd hears about another group of owls, the "Pure Ones", he decides to desert his family and join them.
The Pure Ones tolerate no weakness and insist on total obedience. They are led by the evil Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton) and his mate Nyra, who is voiced by Helen Mirren – and she is chilling.
The Pure Ones also know the legends of the Guardians, and their ambition is to find the old order and destroy it.
They are like the Nazis, annihilating the weak but nurturing the ruthless and violent.
Their goal is to find the fortress tree of Ga’Hoole, destroy the Guardians and seize power.
In their arrogance they force the strong young owls to join their army. As soon as Kludd sees these owls, he foreswears his family ties to become a warrior for the Pure Ones.
So we have brother against brother and forces of darkness ganging up on a force of light. At the centre stands Soren, who believes in the dream of the Guardians, and devotes himself to finding them.
Like Frodo Baggins seeking the Ring of Power; or Lancelot searching for the Holy Grail, Soren must face terrible adversity, just like the heroes of legend, who fought to preserve family, justice and truth.
These big themes are tackled with dazzling skill by director Zack Snyder who made the stunning CGI epic 300 about the famous battle of Thermopylae, where just 300 Spartans held off the huge Persian army. Just as 300 was a landmark in the sword and sandals genre, The Legend of the Guardians, while quite different, is a landmark of similar significance.
The CGI animation is astonishing in its attention to detail. Just watch how the plumage of the various owls moves – and there is a magical moment when an owl swirls downward in a rain-laden wind. The water seems real, the feathers are almost tactile and when you add the 3D effects, it just blows your mind.
In some cinemas you will not be able to see it in 3D and still the drama and power of the film will be intact, but the 3D adds a dimension of sensation and design that makes you gasp.
Snyder does not dumb the movie down for children. There is nothing "cute" about this film, and sometimes it is a case of "nature, red in tooth and claw".
Parents should heed the PG10 guideline and should stick by the younger kids, because it does get scary.
Nonetheless, the story is filled with high ideals and wondrous achievement.
I hope the further adventures of Soren and Eglantine will reach our screens as soon as possible.
For lovers of old-fashioned cartoons, The Legend of The Guardians is preceded by a brand new Road Runner cartoon in 3D, and that alone is worth the cost of a ticket.