Zack Snyder landed on the film scene with a bang, directing the remake of Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead. Many, myself included, scoffed at his audacity to remake what remains a horror classic. But when we saw the 2004 film, we realized that it had little in common with Romero’s vision except for a mall and what can vaguely be called Zombies. It was fresh and original–and it only hinted at the level of stylistic charm Snyder was capable of.
Then old Zack gave us 300, a brash and over-the-top tale of brute strength, death and glorious violence. I, honestly, wasn’t a big fan. But I had to admit that Snyder’s visual flair was more than a flair. He had a great eye for pushing digital cinema to new realms that purposefully blurred the lines between fantasy and reality with impossible angles, theatrical lighting and wild slow-motion film ramping.
Finally, this whiz kid (well, he’s forty-four but seems younger, right?) tackled the impossible, finally bringing Alan Moore’s unfilmable graphic novel “Watchmen” to the screen. While the reaction was decidedly mixed, there are those of us who applaud Snyder’s approach to the source material. He managed to make the novel somehow more action-packed and fun (gotta try and get those teens in the theater) while also respecting the heavy philosophical themes of the book–and, I would argue, improving on certain clunky elements of the original story (like the WTF squid).
So now we get a good grasp of what kind of filmmaker Snyder is. He loves intensely complicated and action-packed visuals. Violence, gore, nudity and heavy themes are his forte, and he’s made some of the most edgy adult-oriented R-rated films of the past six years.
It’s a no-brainer, then, that Snyder would decide to tackle a popular series of childrens’ novels about cute and cuddly owls. Wait…what?
True, on the surface the “Owls of Ga’hoole” books are a wild mismatch for this talented director. But looking a little closer, there are few who could have given this movie the gravitas, visual beauty and attention to story that it needed to work for young and old alike.
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole follows Soren, a young owl who is kidnapped by the evil owls of St. Aggie’s. These are some bad owls, hell-bent on owl-world domination and brainwashing young owlets to do their bidding.
Luckily, though, Soren escapes (while his brother stays on with the bad guys and starts “drinking the cool-aid”) and goes off to find the Legendary Owls of Ga’hoole who live in a stunning tree and protect the world from bad-ness. Of course, a big battle ensues and Soren must confront his own fears and limitations while also learning what it means to be a Guardian.
In short? It’s Lord of the Rings with owls. And while that description might sound dismissive or flippant, it really isn’t a bad thing at all.
Especially when you consider Snyder’s visual style. Slow-motion and epic, sweeping camera moves perfectly complement the grandiose motion of these winged creatures, and the renderings of their flights, fights, and interactions are truly breathtaking. The attention to detail is top-notch, and Snyder is careful to add meaningful character and story moments that connect us with the material while simultaneously taking our breath away.
While movies like Shrek 4 and Madagascar use digital animation as a gimmicky slapstick-ridden ploy, Legend of the Guardians manages to elevate digital animation as an art form without pulling us out of the story for one second.
And the story, I must say, is a dark one. The first act, in particular, goes places many filmgoers, especially those with small children, will not expect. And it works. For once, we are watching a family movie with something genuinely at stake. There is sacrifice and complicated character motivations. There are battles and deaths and hard truths.
If I had one complaint to level against this film, it would be that the movie seemed in a bit of a hurry to tell its story. Sequences that felt like they should be long and methodical breeze by in a few minutes, and huge plot turns happen in single scenes. This creates a tight movie where every piece of information is important, but the tone takes a hit. I wish Snyder had let the movie play out to its fullest extent, but the studio, no doubt, had reservations about releasing any animated family film that goes beyond its expected 90-minute length. I mean, you’d lose the kids, right?
Wrong. I once read that the true test of a movie like this is whether it can actually hold a kid’s attention. Legend of the Guardians passes the test with flying colors. The theater I was in was packed with younglings, and nary a whimper, whine, sigh, or squeal was to be found. Instead, the kids placed their hands firmly on their chins and leaned a little closer to the screen, eager to be drawn into the action just a little more. I remembered my experiences watching classic family cinema as a child, and I couldn’t help but smile. This movie, I knew, would be embedded in these kids psyches well into adulthood–it’s the kind of movie they’ll talk about as teenagers, matter-of-factly telling their younger siblings that “they just don’t make them like they used to.”
No, they really don’t. So thanks, Zack Snyder, for providing quality, edgy and visually stunning cinema that is at once familiar and groundbreaking.
But I’m on to you, sir. While you have a distinct and strong visual style, you also have a cheap parlor trick you use to make your movies “work.” You adjust your style to suit the story, and instead of fighting with the genre or themes of the material, you work to complement them. How sly of you…let’s hope the rest of the world doesn’t catch on. If they do, other auteur directors might follow suit and we’ll get an influx of story-driven films that also have distinct and compelling visual styles.