It can really all be summed up with the title, which at one point was called Guardians of Ga’Hoole, like the book series. That was a perfect name for the film. It’s already out there in the public consciousness, or at least the part of the public aware of the books, it rolls off the tongue, and it’s specific as to what the movie is about. But somewhere along the line it acquired a colon and effectively two titles for seemingly no purpose. Sometimes sequels get that long when you’ve got the name of the franchise and the name of the latest installment, but what’s the purpose of saddling a first film with such a long moniker? This means people then have to choose how to abbreviate it and what to call it. The Owls of Ga’Hoole is certainly the more on-the-nose of the two (and yet Guardians of Ga’Hoole still sounds better), but considering the larger-fonted part of the title and the fact that it comes before the colon, Legends of the Guardians became the de facto nomenclature. And I can’t think of a more generic title that could be about almost anything as Legends of the Guardians. Is it a comic book about unknown super-heroes, a PBS documentary about Egyptian pyramids and crypts, a poster series of NFL defensive linebackers? The very title is so generic it begins to put you to sleep the more you say it, look at it, or think about it.
The animation in Legends of the Guardians is absolutely gorgeous. It may very well be the best computer animation ever put on film to-date, and the realistic detail of the owls and their feathering is amazing. It’s possible to forget what’s actually happening onscreen and lose yourself while examining the detail of the rendering. It also has an inspiring, uplifting score that works very well with the material and the emotional journey of the story. And finally, the voice cast is well-suited with the style of the film, and they turn in uniformly great work. Legends features a lot of lesser-known Australian actors who may not be as immediately identifiable to audiences as when animated films use huge Hollywood names. That serves the story well and allows the audience to be more immersed in the narrative instead of continually being displaced into the guess-the-voice-actor game. The story of Legends of the Guardians feels Shakespearean in structure and tone, and the largely Australian voice cast helps give it all a very classical feel.
The problem with the film is two-fold; and they are enormous problems that limit the lasting impression of Legends of the Guardians to something as generic as its title. The first is the framing of the shots, and the fact that there are only so many ways to frame an owl in flight. To fit it properly into the screen, the choices are ultimately a medium shot or a medium close-up, the beautifully rendered environmental background behind it and the owl with its wings spread, soaring across the sky, much like what you see in the movie posters. Once the film reaches its half-way mark and some of the novelty of that gorgeous animation has begun to wear off, after flight scene after flight scene and aerial fight scene after aerial fight scene, you’re left watching the same, repetitive shot framing and sequencing over and over. Despite some character work being done on the looks of the different owls, there’s also been a lot of effort to capture a high degree of photo-realism. This results in many of the owls looking extremely similar to each other, particularly when flying and fighting at high speeds. As gorgeous as the animation is, the overall look of the film, and the shots themselves, run together in a way that muddies the action and is finally generic, hard-to-follow, and forgettable.
That’s echoed by a story narrative that eschews the kind of deep character work often found in animated films for a very classical, almost Shakespearean narrative structure. It starts out feeling fresh, and it’s a pairing with the photo-realistic animation that initially works very well. But there’s not enough story development or story detail. In classical plays, the complexity of the language, and the way it informs the depths of character, provides a needed balance to what can be a sweeping yet often superficial plot structure. Legends of the Guardians doesn’t even attempt a Shakespearean level of dialogue or language, and nothing else has been worked in to serve as a counterpoint to its skeletal plotting. So while the beauty of the animation is being undercut by the limitations of its subject matter and the film’s stylistic choices, the content and story structure supporting it simultaneously creaks and falls apart under the weight of its own inadequacy.
What begins as a gorgeous-looking piece of animation full of promise is eventually swallowed whole by its own boring tedium and repetitiveness.