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Not many directors dare to tackle live-action and animated films, though James Cameron edged toward the animated realm in sections of “Avatar.” Now Zack Snyder, director of “300” and “Watchmen,” has made his first 3D animated feature, “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.'” This picture sometimes rivals “Avatar” in its spectacular landscapes and thrilling flying sequences, but of course it won’t come anywhere near those megagrosses, and it’s too scary to be wholeheartedly embraced by children. However, it should capture a nice audience for Warner Bros. and might even earn better reviews than some of Snyder’s live-action movies.
The picture is based on the first three books in a 15-volume series by children’s author Kathryn Lasky, who created the mythology of a young owl caught up in the battle between the noble Guardian owls and a more evil band, ironically known as the Pure Ones. The script by John Orloff and Emil Stern isn’t going to win any prizes for originality; you can spot the influence of many other movies including “The Lion King.” Our hero, Soren (Jim Sturgess), has a jealous brother tempted by the dark side as well as a few eccentric mentors.
For young audiences in particular, there’s another problem that most animated films are clever enough to avoid. Because all the characters are owls with rather similar looks, it takes a while to distinguish the large creature cast. “Lion King” included meerkats and hyenas as well as lions, and “Shrek” had a donkey and cat to accompany the ogre. It’s risky to tamper with this formula. Kids need clearer visual signals to get a handle on all the characters.
On the plus side, these characters are given voice by an impressive cast of mainly Australian actors — much of the production was designed in Sydney — including Abbie Cornish, Sam Neill, Hugo Weaving, Joel Edgerton and David Wenham. Geoffrey Rush brings marvelous, idiosyncratic vigor to the role of the grizzled leader of the Guardians. Brits like Sturgess round out the cast. Miriam Margolyes oozes maternal protectiveness as the owls’ pet snake and nanny, and Helen Mirren — the busiest actress on the planet, with three more movies opening before year’s end — lends a note of elegant, silken menace to the chief villain of the piece. One’s only regret is that she doesn’t have more to do, but if this film succeeds, she’s clearly set to return in the sequel.
The chief pleasures of the movie are visual: The dark forests and imposing seascapes, modeled on rugged terrain in Tasmania, are richly seductive. The 3D camerawork is dynamic as we soar with the owls through woods and across the ocean to the Guardians’ island kingdom. The huge technical team has crafted images that often transcend traditional animation to look at once remarkably lifelike and suitably fantastical. The lush musical score by David Hirschfelder enhances the movie’s shifting moods of terror and exaltation.
Opens: Friday, Sept. 24 (Warner Bros.)
Production: Village Roadshow Pictures, Animal Logic
Voices: Helen Mirren, Geoffrey Rush, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Emily Barclay, Abbie Cornish, Ryan Kwanten, Anthony LaPaglia, Miriam Margolyes, Sam Neill
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenwriters: John Orloff, Emil Stern
Based on the books by: Kathryn Lasky
Producer: Zareh Nalbandian
Executive producers: Donald DeLine, Deborah Snyder, Lionel Wigram, Chris deFaria, Kathryn Lasky, Bruce Berman
Production designer: Simon Whiteley
Music: David Hirschfelder
Editor: David Burrows
Rated PG, 91 minutes
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