After a late summer drought of family-friendly movies we're in the back-to-school season again with a few new releases. With Harry Potter nearing the end of his tenure (by the way, the trailer for The Deathly Hallows Part 1 is pretty awesome) studios and viewers alike are searching for that next big epic.
Enter Legends of the Guardians, based on the Guardians of Ga'Hoole series of books by Kathryn Lasky. It follows the adventures of Soren, a young barn owl, in his quest to join the legendary Guardian owls that are supposed to watch over the land, etc, etc.
It's always tricky to make a decent movie with talking animals, especially considering the painful CGI and live-action hybrids like Cats and Dogs or any of the comic-strip-based disasters that have been inflicted on the public in the last several years. Thankfully, Guardians avoids some of the worse cognitive dissonance by not having any human characters, or indeed signs of mankind at all.
The movie gets right down to the Epic Fantasy business, with the protagonist, Soren, being torn from his cozy family life and ending up (literally) in the clutches of some nasty, nasty Nazi-ish birds who think their particular breed (Barn Owls, like Soren and his brother) should be ruling the land (which is apparently Mythical Tasmania, based on some of the critters that show up). Daring escapes and a drastically compressed epic journey, complete with the requisite companions, ensue, and we move on to all the typical Hero's Journey stuff. The plot is pretty typical of the genre, and is no better or worse than anything else of the sort.
The movie has it's flaws, including some issues with pacing (the usual problem of trying to compress an Epic Storyline into a marketable movie applies, some parts seem far too rushed and superficial, while some seemingly unimportant bits seem to drag on a bit) and occasionally cliched Fantasy Adventure dialogue, but makes up for them with some outright stunning visuals. The flight scenes don't quite achieve the sense of motion and scale of How To Train Your Dragon, but they have some beautiful sequences. You get the feeling the animators worked very hard to on rain and feathers. The use of color and lighting is also exceptionally well done. The battle scenes were dramatic and conveyed some of the brutality of the fighting without the blood and gore.
The tone of the movie was a bit dark, with betrayals abounding and some creepy bad guys, but is probably fine for kids over, say, 7 or so. It also did a pretty admirable job of not getting too caught up on the comic relief. There were a few corny moments and several of Soren's companions have their humorous side, but the film stops short of letting it get annoying, and they all get a chance to show some heroism as well.
Overall, Guardians was well done, if not exceptional, and a good choice for a rainy day. I can only hope that if the studio decides to make any sequels they'll leave a bit more room for plot development.