Whether or not fans of 300 and Watchmen are ready for a brand-new family-friendly Zack Snyder, September 24 will be a good day for fans of those movies with kids to induct new and younger blood into the Zack Snyder fanclub, as Warner Bros. releases Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, based on the series of books by Kathryn Lasky.
Snyder has been working non-stop around the clock with Australian animation house Animal Logic, best known for their work on George Miller’s Oscar winning Happy Feet, to finish the movie while at the same time filming and editing his other movie Sucker Punch. Last night, Snyder launched the start of a worldwide roadshow tour for “Guardians” with a stop at the Time Warner Center in New York City. (Almost concurrently, IMP Awards released the eight character posters that were on display in the lobby of the event. Warner Bros. also had live owls in attendance for the attending press to pose for pictures with.)
Essentially, Snyder showed the trailer, five full clips from the movie and a new montage of footage, all in 3D, setting up some of the characters and the general premise of the film–much of the footage coming from the first half of the movie–as well as talking about why he wanted to make a family movie.
The story follows two very different owls, brothers Soren and Kludd, voiced by Jim Sturgess and Ryan Kwanten, who are captured by “evil” owls known as the Pure Ones and brought back to their canyon lair called St. Aegolius or “St. Aggies,” where they’re building an army. Soren escapes and along with a few creatures he meets along the way, they go looking for the legendary Guardians of Ga’Hoole, mighty warrior owls who can put a stop to the Pure Ones’ evil ways.
The first clip opened with Soren and Kludd trying to learn how to fly using a technique called “branching” where they hop from one tree branch to another, then climb back up and do that repeatedly until they get the hang of falling until they can flap their wings and fly. The two brothers are playing make-believe and goofing around on a high branch when Kludd pushes Soren and the two of them start falling and one impacts with the ground, followed by the other. When they land, Kludd asks if Soren is okay, but Soren is clearly scared of being on the ground, being the “worst place for an owl.” Just as Kludd suggests they try figure out how to get back up to one of the nearby branches, they’re quickly scooped up by a couple of larger owls who carry them into the air. One of these owls is Grimble, voiced by Hugo Weaving, a worker class owl who is against some of the Pure Ones’ plans. A couple of the other owls start kibitzing with him, as they carry the young owls to St. Aggies. Being carried by an owl next to Soren is a tiny elf owl named Gylfie (voiced by Emily Barclay), who is absolutely petrified, wondering who these owls are and where they’re being taken. They’re told to stop talking as the owls swoop down towards the rocky crags of the canyons of St. Aggies.
Zack was clearly proud of the work Animal Logic had done bringing these owl characters to life and making them look so realistic down to the feathers, which were designed to look like they laid on top of each other in separate layers rather than just having a feather texture that doesn’t look as natural.
The second clip involves the young owls being taught to fly, Soren and Kludd having been separated into two camps, the latter being trained as a potential soldier by the evil owl queen Nyra (voiced by Helen Mirren), who tells the young trainees the best of them will be presented before the Lord High Titan (Admittedly, there’s something strangely familiar and eerie about the concept of the Pure Ones stealing young owls to train them as soldiers, as it reflects what is happening in parts of Africa with the child soldiers there.) Nyra is holding a small blue bird in her talon, which she releases by throwing it through the air. The young owls watch this but then she commands them to chase after it, which they do, clawing at each other to get ahead. The struggle turns into a battle as one owl throws a rock at Kludd to slow him down–the rock flies straight at the screen to take advantage of the 3D–and Kludd clings onto a flag to keep from falling. This clip showed how Snyder’s sense of visualizing action sequences has been retained as this was a dynamic action scene where things sped up and slowed down, taking full advantage of the 3rd dimension. Finally, Kludd catches the bird and Nyra is clearly impressed. “Well done,” she says. She then asks if Kludd’s brother has similar potential, but clearly, Kludd is trying to advance in his constant squabbling with his brother, so he tells her Soren fell out of the tree as a hatchling and is lame. Nyra laughs at this, but scolds Kludd for taking her praise as license to put down his brother, because they’re looking for as many good flyers as possible. She suggests they go tell Soren about the rewards there are for those who join the Lord High Titan’s army and “recognize their true family.”
It then cuts to a secret library where Grimble is trying to teach Soren and Gylfie how to fly, but Gylfie isn’t getting the hang of it because she says her wings are too short, and he mentions how they’re going to have to fly a long way to get to the Guardians of Ga’Hoole. Soren has been fascinated by the stories his father has told him about the Guardians, but he was never sure if they were real, but Grimble fills the young owlet’s heads with visions of a Great Tree in the middle of the sea surrounded by mists that keeps it hidden from “all but the strong of purpose and true of heart.” He suggests he’d go with them but he has to stay with his own family, but as Soren and Gylfie prepare to head off, Nyra shows up and confronts Grimble with his subterfuge and that turns into a fight. Soren and Gylfie run but end up at the mouth of the cave at the edge of a sheer drop while Grimble and Nyra continue to fight in the background before Grimble ends up on top of Nyra. “Would you wound your queen, Grimble?” she asks, to which he growls back, “You’re not my queen!” Uncertain what to do, Kludd lashes out, distracting Grimble so that Nyra gets the upper-hand in their struggle and a lamp gets knocked over setting the entire place on fire.
Gylfie tells Soren they have to go and Grimble yells, “What are you waiting for?” and they both leap off the edge of the precipice. She starts falling, so he swoops downwards and helps get her aloft as they fly through the canyons chased by a formation of Nyra’s soldier owls wearing metal helmets, their fierce metal-encased talons lashing closer and closer. The two young owls manage to just stay ahead of their pursuers and Soren shouts to Gylfie that he sees a way out, a crack in the canyon walls they can fly through to escape. Being smaller, they fly through the crack as one of the metal talons narrowly misses catching them as the action slows down to show how close a call it is. They’re now out of the caverns, leaving the pursuing owls behind them, and Soren urges Gylfie to fly faster even though she’s clearly not as good a flyer as him. “I think they’re gone,” Soren says as they slow down and find themselves flying through a heavy fog, and it’s only then that Soren realizes they’ve actually been flying for real. The two of them happily fly above the clouds and we see a beautiful sunset in the distance, another great example of how Animal Logic are creating these amazing environments for the story.
Once Soren and Gylfie are on their way to find the Guardians, they end up encountering others who will join them, the first being a “skittish” burrowing owl named Digger, voiced by David Wenham, who clearly offers some light comic relief within their dangerous adventure. The third clip shown introduced this character, opening with a close-up of a gorgeous moth that Soren lunges at to catch in order to feed himself and Gylfie. Digger pops out claiming he has already caught that moth and before they can react, he burrows into the ground. Gylfie apologizes for taking his moth, which Soren still denies, and they tell Digger they’re looking for a place to hide and rest. Digger pops his head out and they have a bit of patter between them. Digger is rather eccentric, bordering on completely crazy, and we were told he has a short attention span and is “prone to theatrics,” but he seems to know more about how to find the Guardians, though he warns of some of the dangerous creatures they might face on that journey.
The next scene is a little later once Soren and Gylfie have been joined on their journey by others. They’re flying through a heavy snow over the choppy sea mentioned by Grimble earlier when suddenly, Digger’s wings start to ice up and he goes crashing into the waters below, Soren diving after him to no avail. Almost immediately, a significantly larger owl in a metal helmet with metal talons explodes out of the water holding Digger in her talons. This is our first look at one of the Guardians and she asks Soren if he can fly with her, to which he says there are five of them, which she says they know. The group follows the Guardian across the ocean towards Ga’Hoole, first passing a lush tree with a gong on one of its branches (probably to warn of intruders), and deep into this new land towards the enormous and spectacular Great Tree of Ga’Hoole as the music swells. There are owls perched in the Great Tree for a Parliament meeting of the council of elders to discuss the presence of Soren and Gylfie and whether the Guardians should believe what they’re saying about the activities of the Pure Ones. Here’s where we meet the owl’s leader Boron, voiced by Richard Roxburgh, who is skeptical or Soren’s story, and Soren’s future mentor Ezylryb, voiced by Geoffrey Rush, who stands up for the newcomers’ story, saying that what Soren has told the council would be a worthy reason to go to war with the Pure Ones. The owls discuss amongst themselves whose side to take, and Soren pleads with them that he’s telling them the truth about young owls being stolen from their hollows by these evil owls. Boron has heard enough and he tells the leader of the Guardian army to take his best to look into it immediately.
The last scene jumps forward a bit as Soren has already been taken under Ezylryb’s wing, his new mentor hoping to help the young owl realize his full potential as a possible warrior himself. Ezyryb takes Soren out into a heavy rainstorm to teach him how to “really fly” while navigating through dangerous flying situations. Ezylryb yells instructions to his young liege, who is having trouble getting through the rain. Soren panics at first but then he starts focusing. Suddenly, the rain slows down to a crawl and the camera follows a drop of water as it plummets towards Soren’s eye. “He sees it,” Ezylryb tells Gylfie, who has accompanied them. The rain droplets begin forming themselves into a more structured spiral pattern that allows Soren to fly around the rain drops. Soren then looks down at the ocean below and gets distracted, and having lost his concentration, he starts to fall so Ezylryb saves him.
After Soren’s lesson, they return to Ezylryb’s hollow and they talk about what they just experienced as Ezylryb stirs the coals in the fire with his talons. As they speak, Soren spots a book with a marking that looks familiar, and Soren asks if Ezylryb wrote “The Chronicle of the Battle of the Icicles.” Ezylryb is reluctant to say much but he does say that he was there and that he wrote the book. After being grilled by Soren, Ezyryb admits he was once known as “Lyze of Kiel,” the legendary leader of a band of owl warriors that fought in these mythic battles Soren heard about from his father’s stories. Snyder mentioned part of Soren’s journey and an important lesson will be to find out why those great battles happened.
This final clip was quickly followed by a montage of footage from the rest of the movie including glimpses at some of the other characters like Soren and Kludd’s sister Englantine, voiced by Emilie de Ravin, and the other travelers in the band who go looking for the Guardians, Twilight and Mrs. P, Soren’s snake nursemaid. This footage was cut to a song by Adam Young’s Owl City called “To the Sky” which is used during a montage once Soren arrives at the Great Tree, and it ended with Soren in his own metal helmet carrying a golden vessel filled with fire.
Another thing we want to note is the absolutely glorious score by David Hirschfelder, who worked with Baz Luhrman on his recent Australia. (Is it a coincidence that Zack is also working with another Lurhman collaborator Marius De Vries on the music for his movie Sucker Punch?) Working with Animal Logic, a mostly Australian voice cast and Hirschfelder on “Guardians” is part of what qualifies the film for an Australian tax rebate, and it certainly gives the film a very distinctive feel, although at times we wondered whether American kids may have trouble understanding some of the Aussie accents. This is clearly a complex story with quite a few characters and different levels to their dynamics–at times in the presentation, Snyder seemed to have trouble explaining it himself–but the dialogue is simple enough that young audiences should be captivate by the whole thing, while the amazing cast of voice actors really helps add weight and gravity to every scene we watched, making it obvious how dangerous Soren’s journey will be.
In conclusion, the footage looked incredible, the owls looking photo realistic down to the tiniest detail due to Snyder’s notorious perfectionism as a filmmaker, and the environments just looked astounding, as they clearly spent a good amount of time developing the world from Lasky’s books. We were also impressed by how fantastic the weather looked in the scenes where the owls had to fly through rain or snow. In fact, every time a clip stopped for Snyder to talk, we felt somewhat letdown that we couldn’t stay in this world a bit longer.
Obviously, audience will have a chance to get pulled into that world when Snyder’s Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole opens on September 24 in 3D, IMAX 3D and 2D theaters. While it certainly may be different for Snyder to make something that’s kid-friendly, it’s clear he’s not compromising his strength at storytelling or his distinctive vision while doing so.