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April 2011

Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga'Hoole

voice cast: Jim Sturgess, Geoffrey Rush, Helen Mirren, Sam Neill, and Hugo Weaving

director: Zack Snyder

83 minutes (PG) 2010
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Warner DVD Region 2

RATING: 2/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga'Hoole

Sitting on a crate in my bathroom, I have a stack of old gaming magazines. Every time I see these magazines, I think that I really ought to chuck them out but then I'll pick one of them up, flick to a random page, and be suddenly struck by the terrible pathos of the neglected idea. Our culture loves to romanticise the artist. It loves to celebrate the idea of a heroic individual who finds inspiration in the horror of the world, and transforms that inspiration into something beautiful and enduring. We love artists because they remind us of the human brain's capacity for turning misery, isolation and madness into beauty, happiness and truth. We adore the artist because art is and always has been a reminder of the divine spark that departed the world along with the ancient gods.

However, as much as we adore the artist, we are also fickle in our emotional attachment and while some creations are lauded as works of genius, most acts of individual creativity go sadly unrecognised. Pick up an old gaming magazine or an old short-fiction magazine and you will find dozens of ideas that could, had they found their way to the right author in the right market at the right time, have launched a career. These forgotten, neglected and wasted ideas could have forged a media franchise or changed lives, they could have been contenders but instead, they sit in an old magazine, on a crate, in my bathroom.

The tragedy of human invention is made only more bitter by the fact that those works that do forge media franchises are all too often sickeningly derivative. For an example of this unjust and inhumane wastefulness look no further than Zack Snyder's Legend of The Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, a film based upon a successful series of fantasy novels by Kathryn Lasky that is so derivative and stale it is actually insulting.

Soren (Jim Sturgess) is a barn owl. The dreamiest of three siblings, he spends his time telling and re-telling stories about the legendary Guardians of Ga'Hoole, to the delight of his younger sister and the disgust of his older brother Kludd. One day, as the two brothers try to teach themselves to fly, they are kidnapped by evil owls working for the legendary Metalbeak, who is building an army in the hope of conquering the world using somewhat hand-wavy hypnotic powers and an equally ill-defined electro-magnetic weapon that evidently harms owls but not bats (something to do with owls having metal in their gizzards). After escaping with the help of a tiny desert owl named Gylfie and an older owl named Grimble (Huge Weaving), Soren decides that the only people who can stop Metalbeak are the Guardians and so the pair set off for Ga'Hoole where they discover that the reality of life as a Guardian is a good deal more complex than the stories suggested and that with glory and battle also comes misery, betrayal and death.

Legend Of The Guardians is a film with two major problems. The first is that it is so painfully generic and derivative that it feels more like a demonstration of the insidious nature of plagiarism than a piece of genuine filmmaking, and the second is that what ideas it does have are implemented in such a way as to make them feel dull, lifeless and boring.

Aptly enough for a film about owls, Legend Of The Guardians is so full of stock characters, formulaic plotting and generic clich�s that it is impossible to watch it without engaging in a spot of geek bird-watching as every single character and plot device hark seem to hark back to either The Lord Of The Rings, Star Wars, or The Chronicles Of Narnia. For example, the evil metallic overlord Metalbeak is obviously Darth Vader while his beautifully icy mate Nyra (Helen Mirren) is the White Witch from Narnia, and her sexualised seduction of the bitter Kludd is a clear reiteration of her somewhat euphemistic use of 'Turkish delight' to lure the bitter Edmund into betraying the other Pevensie children. Predictably, the Guardians themselves prove just as derivative as the baddies with their fractious council, otherworldly royals and morally corrupted but well-meaning warriors all obviously inspired by The Lord Of The Rings, while Soren's tiny mentor Ezylryb (Geoffrey Rush) combines elements of Obi-wan and Yoda right down to his tedious pseudo-mystical gibbering about 'gizzards' standing in for 'the Force'.

Of course, despite my melodramatic protestations, there is nothing inherently wrong with being derivative as long as the ideas and plots you re-use are well implemented. After all, what is genre literature if not the engaging re-use of old ideas? For example, Chris Sanders and Dean DuBlois' How To Train Your Dragon (2010) is an absolute delight despite being, just like Legend Of The Guardians, a derivative film based upon a series of derivative children's books. However, while How To Train Your Dragon has enough charm and charisma that you forgive it its lack of originality, Legend Of The Guardians is a film devoid of even the smallest scrap of likeability despite being directed by Zack Snyder.

Snyder is a much under-rated director. Having made his name through a series of remakes and big screen adaptations, Snyder's IMDb page looks like that of any number of hack film directors happy to move from project to project on the understanding that their work has no higher aim than to pay the bills and secure the next paycheque. However, despite a fondness for big screen adaptations of work by other people, Snyder has always had the ability to find the ugly core of whatever it was he was working on and transmit it to the screen. For example, when he adapted Frank Miller's fascistic 300, Snyder realised that the film was not about heroism or about history but about the use of violence as an outlet for repressed sexual desire.

Similarly, when Snyder took on Alan Moore's hallowed Watchmen, he understood that the urge to dabble in politics and mete out justice was grounded in the human capacity to distort its own sexual impulses; it is not just that humans kill people because they want to get laid, they go into politics, save the world, and write film reviews because they want to get fucked. Snyder is the foremost Freudian filmmaker of his generation and, as such, he is one of the few directors to realise not only that fighting and fucking go together but also that fighting and fucking form the basis for all human activity.

Snyder is shamelessly misanthropic and perfectly adapted to a cultural climate where the individual is king and the king is assumed to be a complete cunt. His exquisite fetishisation of violence, his love of gore and grue, his spirals of death and destruction are not just an expression of a personal philosophy, they are a coherent and beautiful directorial vision. Zack Snyder speaks to the miserable, lank-haired, compulsively masturbating homunculus in all of us, but while the singularity and power of this vision has won him a legion of fan-boys, it also makes him a somewhat poor choice for making a children's film about owls.

From vicious airborne battles to scenes of magical torture and a jaw-dropping sequence in which Soren flies through a firestorm in order to win the day, Legend Of The Guardians contains moments of visual poetry that rival anything in Snyder's work to date. However, because Legend Of The Guardians is ultimately a children's film, Snyder is denied his usual tactic of sexualising the film's conflict. Banned from his traditional bag of tricks, Snyder's beautifully composed set pieces feel devoid of emotional or thematic resonance because they fail to find much purchase on a script that is entirely reliant upon generic characters and lazy storytelling. This is where the derivative nature of Legend Of The Guardians really begins to bite.

Instead of trying to generate sympathy for the characters and emotional investment in the narrative through decent characterisation and well-conceived plotting, Orloff and Stern's script limits itself to using what can only be called generic momentum. For example, we are supposed to root for the Guardians because Metalbeak is evil, but what is it that Metalbeak has actually done? Similarly, when Kludd turns on his brother and tries to convince his little sister to join up with Metalbeak we are supposed to be appalled by his betrayal, but given that Kludd is always presented as an unsympathetic bully, what is so appalling about his turning out to be evil? In both cases, our emotional engagement is dependent not upon the actual characters or the situations they inhabit, but upon the mnemonic associations forged between Legend Of The Guardians and other works by its derivative nature.

Indeed, we root for the downfall of Metalbeak not because we have any objective reason for thinking him evil, but because he reminds us of Darth Vader. Similarly, we are horrified by Kludd's betrayal not because it is unexpected or inherently shocking but because he reminds us of Edmund from The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. In both cases, Orloff and Stern forego actual characterisation and plotting in favour of making use of the groundwork laid down by the writers whose ideas they and Lasky so shamelessly borrow. This means that Legend Of The Guardians is not a film that is merely lacking in originality, it is a film that is effectively parasitic on other works of genre as it relies upon the very derivative nature of its plots and characters as a means of by passing the need to write an actual story. It is not Lasky, Stern or Orloff who imbue Legend Of The Guardians with what emotional content it has but Lucas, Tolkien, and Lewis!

Clever though it may be, this act of genre parasitism ultimately proves to be something of a double-edged sword as while the re-use of stock characters and plots force us to remember older and more powerful works, this act of remembrance also forces us out of direct emotional engagement with the film itself. So, because we spend the entire running time of Legend Of The Guardians going 'Lord Of The Rings, Lord Of The Rings, Star Wars, Narnia' we are not really engrossed in the plot, making for a dull and irritating viewing experience. Beautiful though its visuals may be, Legend Of The Guardians is ultimately too derivative to be worthy of anyone's time.



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