3D has jumped the shark. Again. The elegance briefly accorded the format by recent game-changers like Avatar has given way to the kind of summer shlock that has been its stock-in-trade since its inception in the 1950s: Step Up 3D, Piranha 3D, and yes, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, directed by Zack Snyder (of 300 fame), which tries to do for the nocturnal birds what Happy Feet (produced by the same studio, Animal Logic) did for penguins, but with twice the bombast. The animation is more dizzying than artful: Owls move from background to foreground and back again, performing all sorts of acrobatic feats (diving through the air, snapping their claws, playing musical instruments) in a dark and drab canyon-like setting, constantly rendered at either sunset or sunrise, that recalls The Lion King by way of Winged Migration.
Actually, The Lion King is a pretty apt point of comparison for the film, which paints its folkloric plot in absurdly black-and-white moralistic terms, all the better for frightening children into spending a day bird-watching at Yellowstone National Park. Little “owlets” Soren and Gylfie (read: Simba, Nala) are snapped up by some owl thugs, after which they’re forced to serve the “Pure Ones,” a network of owl Nazis run by a king and his domineering wife (voiced by Helen Mirren) mining precious metals for…well, it’s not exactly clear, but it looks very sinister. When Soren is betrayed by his brother, Kludd, he escapes and seeks the help of the Guardians, a group of more socialistic owls living in a giant tree and assigned various egalitarian chores. The ensuing war over the future of the owl kingdom is set, naturally, to a twee pop song by Owl City called “To the Sky.”
If 300 was an abomination of history, Synder’s latest is an abomination of the power of fairy tales. The spectacle is not without its ambitions, being the first big digitally animated film devoted to the bird (a point stressed in the promotional materials, which urge viewers to “adopt an owl”), but it’s hard not to feel like the critters could be substituted with any other flying creatures, and the creepy genocidal/Oedpial allegory would remain intact. A more interesting exploration of owls is Lisando Alonso’s S/T, a relatively stripped-down but potent film-festival trailer in which the image of a staring owl is accompanied by startlingly loud music. It’s only one minute long, but it’s made with something that Legend of the Guardians, for all its attention to detail and claim to environmental concern, lacks: a sense of imagination.