Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (3D)

Soren (Jim Sturgess: 21) is a young barn owl from the forest of Tyto. The dreamer is just learning to spread his wings when he and his brother are kidnapped by agents of the Pure Ones, an evil flock of hawkish owls who snatch owlets for conscripts. It’s up to Soren, bolstered by bedtime stories about legendary heroes, to escape brainwashing and fly to the Guardians of Ga’Hoole to mount a rescue. His quest for help may forge Soren as a legend himself, as he strives to free the owlets and short-circuit one evil owl’s planned reign of terror.

It’s an interesting trip, adapted from the first two books of Kathryn Lasky’s 16-title Guardians of Ga’Hoole kids’ series. The tale launches from a base of eccentric owl naturalism to some pretty bold reaches of imagination. Warrior owls in armor make for nifty fantasy as staged in their Lord of the Rings-style societies. Owlets are stolen into slavery, brainwashed via a technique called “moonblink” and set to work as numb “pickers,” sifting through the regurgitated sewage of owl pellets for flakes of a mystical metal (enriched uranium?) that serves kryptonite for owl gizzards (the seats of owl souls).

It may be a little odd, but the adventure works with good action and dramatic rivalry.

Tale’s potential, though, is undercut by the telling. Director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead; 300; Watchmen) hacks the story into pellets of smart scenes. But he doesn’t do equally well on connections, coherence or context. Non-sequiturs — such as the snake nanny and a random bout with crows — serve up frequent distraction. And, even though the source is but a couple of brief Scholastic chapter books, adaptation yields quick summary that too often plays like a reel of highlights and cuts most supporting characters paper thin.

Visually, the movie is an absolute stunner. Owls are rendered with painstaking realism, right down to the ruffled feathers, and show off in beautifully crafted scenes of fight and flight — even if Snyder gets a little carried away with the slow-mo. The 3D effects throw a few punches in the face but are generally subtle with layered depth. Character designs have just enough cartoonishness to lend a little expression to the cast, but the body language is so subtle that the onus is really on the voice actors. As a result the characters are puffs of feathers with British accents. Cute, but bland.

The movie isn’t perfect and certainly stumbles along the way. But it is entertaining and remarkably good-looking. Families and fans of the books should enjoy.

Good animated fantasy • PG • 90 mins.