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Movie Review

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole

Owls in combat soar in 3-D ‘Legend’

By Tom Russo
Globe Correspondent / September 24, 2010

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It’s always slightly amazing when we remember that George Miller, director of “Babe: Pig in the City’’ and “Happy Feet,’’ is the same George Miller who cranked out multiple installments of “Mad Max’’ mayhem.

Now Zack Snyder, director of “300,’’ “Watchmen,’’ and 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead,’’ aims for a similar sort of go-figure duality with “Legend of the Guardians,’’ a 3-D animated warrior-owls fantasy. The result is sometimes charming and always visually astonishing (Snyder even teamed with the same Australian digital-effects house behind “Happy Feet’’), but we’re never very far from reminders that this is a kids’ movie made by, well, the guy who did “300.’’

The film is adapted from the “Guardians of Ga’Hoole’’ young-adult book series by Cambridge author Kathryn Lasky, and features Jim Sturgess (“Across the Universe’’) as the voice of Soren, an owlet who dreams of adventure — if only he can learn to fly. When Soren gives it a try along with his contrarian older brother, Kludd (Ryan Kwanten, one of numerous Aussies in the cast), they tumble from their hollow, defenseless. They’re promptly snatched up by the Pure Ones, a master race of owls led by Nyra (Helen Mirren) and the sinister Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton).

Kludd is made a soldier, while Soren is sent to slave in the group’s “pelletorium,’’ picking through bird-gunk in search of an enigmatic, darkly prized metal. (Shades of the similarly too-intense kiddie mines from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.’’) Once Soren finally works through his flying issues and escapes, his course his clear: He and some new friends must seek out the distant Guardians, heroic birds of legend, and bring them back to save all of owldom.

Soren’s quest proves again and again that “How to Train Your Dragon’’ wasn’t necessarily the final word on the whole gloriousness-of-flight theme. Snyder and his animators send their downy, photo-real birds swooping breathtakingly through one tableau after the next — golden skies, snow squalls, a monsoon, a raging forest fire. One visual of a creepy hench-bat entering from stage left will have you swearing the thing just flew past your shoulder.

At the same time, the movie gets awfully wrapped up in signature Snyder battle shots, with razor-clawed combatants sailing toward each other in slo-mo, then smashing together at hyper-speed. A Guardian’s talons slash, and we cut to the image of an Orc-like Pure One’s helmet rotating through empty space. “Cool,’’ some kids will say; others may be freaked. The effect finally is to neglect, rather than nurture, a story with potential.

Soren’s moment of truth feels cribbed from “Star Wars,’’ right down to a disembodied mentor telling him to “trust his gizzard’’ (read: “Use the Force’’). What’s the Pure Ones’ metal-sifting all about? What will Soren and Kludd say to each other when they finally confront their brotherly split? Ultimately, Snyder’s frenetic tale doesn’t seem to give a hoot.

Tom Russo can be reached at trusso2222@gmail.com.

LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: The Owls of Ga’Hoole Directed by: Zack Snyder

Written by: John Orloff and Emil Stern, based on the “Guardians of Ga’Hoole’’ novels by Kathryn Lasky

Starring the voices of: Jim Sturgess, Emily Barclay, Helen Mirren, Geoffrey Rush, David Wenham, and Anthony LaPaglia

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs, and Jordan’s IMAX Reading and Natick

Running time: 91 minutes

Rated: PG (sequences of scary action)