I have said it before, and I will once more: there are two Zack Snyders. One is an accomplished "big film" maker, able to traverse genres easily and apply his visually arresting stylistic modus operandi to any subject he sees fit. The other is a brash, immature "artist" whose inability to curb his enthusiasm for all things hyperbolic spoils sequences of his films (if not the entire thing as in the case of Sucker Punch). The director suffers from creative split personalities. That's why my initial surprise to see Snyder's name attached to this children's book adaptation eventually gave way, to be replaced by excitement at the prospect of what he could produce when afforded the artistically and imaginatively liberating medium of animation, given how animation-esque his live-action films have so far been. If there's one thing he knows, it is how to make something look impressive, and indeed the first trailers announced as much, marrying some seriously impressive visuals with the uplifting, anthemic sound of 30 Seconds to Mars' "Kings and Queens" for one of the best trailers of last year. But Snyder's creative identity problems would always be there, nagging at the back of my mind, and indeed despite looking incredible and featuring some very good ideas, that prophecy was realised in the comparatively sloppy overall execution of Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, which is available now on Blu-ray and DVD. First off, some heady praise. Legend of the Guardians is the best-looking animation I have ever seen. That doesn't mean it is the best, or that it is the most life-like, or that its characters are triumphantly drawn or anything like that- it is simply a matter of aesthetics. But that doesn't mean it is anywhere near the best film that uses animation that I have ever seen, far from it in fact- there just isn't the same kind of charm that Pixar routinely and effortlessly inject into their films, and while quality gets you a long way these days, it isn't a substitute for substance. There are a number of good elements though, starting with the voice talent, which reads like a whose who of Australia's premiere acting stars- Geoffrey Rush, Hugo Weaving (not by birth of course), David Wenham, Sam Neill and Anthony LaPaglia with a smattering of the best upcoming talent the country has to offer, in the shape of Abbie Cornish, Joel Edgerton and Ryan Kwanten. It is certainly an Antipodean showcase of sorts, thanks to the characterful tones of some of the most recognisable voices to establish themselves in Hollywood, and listening to the idiosyncrasies of those voices (particularly Rush and Edgerton's) it isn't hard to see why the American/Australian production team opted for Australian accents rather than American. There are a couple of Brits in there as well of course, with Helen Mirren adding her rich, cool tones to Nyra one of the villains of the piece and Jim Sturgess leads the cast as our feathered hero Soren (both adopt believable Aussie accents thankfully), and indeed Sturgess represents one of the shining high-points of an already strong cast of performances. He brings a humanity and emotional relevance to his character that the beak and feathers might otherwise make utterly unbelievable, which unfortunately is very much in spite of the script. Now, going back to those visuals once more before I get stuck in to the other side of the coin: Snyder obviously has an eye for a striking image- he knows how to frame scenes perfectly, making a far bolder statement with what we can see in Legend of the Guardians than anything the script reveals. It is breath-taking in parts, and I have no problem recommending the film heartily and solely on the strength of how it looks: just don't expect much else. It would be nice to say that the film's content matches the quality of its visuals, but sadly it all smacks a little of a lack of directing restraint. There are some excellent moments, but Legend of the Guardians is very much a tale of unrealised potential. The books would have been difficult to adapt for anyone, given the amount of characters and the sub-plots that work a lot better for the three novels this is based on, than on screen, where they tend to take too much focus away from where the audience wants to be, and thus end up feeling superfluous. Characters range from being over-familiar and cliched (albeit in owl disguises), to not registering at all, and the plot in general ranges from too simplistic to too complex, alienating both older and younger audiences by turns and wandering away too much to really capture the imagination. Kids films simply cannot be this complex to watch, no matter how impressive the CGI- something that The Dark Is Rising learnt to its detriment back in 2007 (the year of insipid children's fantasy adaptations). It is a redundant point to argue that the plot is ludicrous, and that the main action is driven by an enemy Weapon of Mass Destruction that has neither reason nor logic, because this is pure fantasy, and logic isn't top of the agenda when you're presented with a film in which owls don helmets and fight each other, so I can't complain in that respect. But I can grumble at the relevance of the weapon, which uses flecks of metal found in owl pelts to cumulatively suppress their enemies (by some telekinetic mystery that I failed to fathom out). It just feels entirely at odds with the rest of the relatively simple plot, and sticks out like a big sore, alien thumb in the context of the rest of the film and the owl forced labour camps, combined with the idea of an owl master race lend themselves to a strangely too blatant allegory of the Pure Ones as owl Nazis!! The fact that the script and Snyder have had to shoe-horn in a vast amount of material means that the resulting film seems oddly empty: for all of its beauty and the prowess of the voicing talent you simply cannot engage with the characters, and it is markedly difficult to fully immerse yourself in the drama of their situation. There isn't the soul to it that I really wish there was, and for the second time in not very long I find myself contemplating a film which Zach Snyder clearly considers to be far more of an epic than it actually is. My final complaint is that the film didn't use the 30 Seconds To Mars track previously employed in the trailer as its signature theme- because the soaring and euphoric rock of "Kings and Queens" was a lot more appropriate for Snyder's obviously epic vision than the God-awful teeny-pop synths of Owl City. Yeah the name matches the characters, but the song- "To The Sky"- is awful, and there is a jarring contradiction in quality between it and the rest of the excellent score by David Hirschfelder. I understand the commercial merit of having a song in there by a "hip" modern act, but for God's sake there has to be some sort of quality control involved. Will we see more Ga'Hoole adaptations? The book series currently numbers 15, but you have to wonder whether the outstanding visuals will be enough to ensure that the franchise goes the way of the other film franchise released today- Harry Potter- and not of the many hugely successful children's book adaptation that have failed to make it past the first film- Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, Eragon, His Dark Materials, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Inkheart- the list is endless. I actually hope that it is inspiration enough to inspire a sequel, though there will have to be some serious work done on the script before I'm happy to shell out to see it.
QualityExceptional. As I suspected when I first saw Legend of the Guardians at the cinema, the animation lends itself perfectly to a stunning high-definition transfer, and Warner Bros have excelled themselves here with what is a stunning transfer. It is powerful and utterly immersive, and lends an extra level of depth to the sublimely executed animation, retaining the smallest details in the owls' plumage and beautifully capturing textures throughout. The transfer exceeds even my lofty expectations: colours are universally bright and vibrant, contrast is excellent and black levels are immaculate, and I can't think of many better examples of what a high-definition transfer can do for the way a film is received than this. It's so good, it's actually worth shelling out for the disc for the quality alone. Again, the sound soars: David Hirschfelder's score is stunningly transferred without the merest suggestion of any blemish, and it is given perfect precedence during dialogue-light scenes. It is a typically loud movie, since it has Snyder's name above the door, and every sound effect that can be amplified is amplified to huge success, and impressively the clarity and prioritising of the dialogue is just as perfectly handled as the louder elements. Seriously, it sounds great, and is about as immersive as is possible: something to show off your surround sound system to friends for definite, as the surround channels seem to always be in use throughout the film.
ExtrasWarner Bros have obviously set their stall out to attract younger viewers, since almost every extra supplement will thrill only those with their milk teeth still intact, but that doesn't mean they aren't well-done. Having been initially uninspired by the Maximum Movie Mode, I now go out of my way to watch them, and WB are consistently doing it with flair. I was also particularly happy to see the Looney Tunes Short "Fur of Flying" that was shown before the film in cinemas included here too, and long that may that reinvigorated trend continue. Maximum Kid Mode (107 mins): Picture-in-picture Maximum Movie Mode True Guardians of the Earth (15 mins) Interactive Activities: "Armor Up" and"Owl Treats". Rise of the Guardians (2 mins): Alternate opening scene. Four Artwork Galleries: "Soren & Friends," "The Locations," "Villains of St. Aegolius" and "The Guardians" Music Video (4 mins): Owl City's Adam Young- "To the Sky." Looney Tunes Short: Fur of Flying (3 mins) Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole is available to buy on Blu-ray and DVD now.
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