Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

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Have you ever gotten really stoned and hallucinated about owls? Neither have I! But I bet it would look like “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole,” a beautifully animated and entirely goofy fantasy film directed by Zack Snyder (“300”) and based on Kathryn Lasky’s popular series of young-adult novels.

I assume the books were popular, anyway; there were 15 of them. And I gather they must have been approximately like the movie: straight-faced and earnest in telling a story that’s inherently silly but that you go with because, well, it’s about ethnic cleansing among owls. Either you’re into that or you’re not.

Our hero is a young owlet named Soren (voice of Jim Sturgess), a starry-eyed lad who loves hearing stories of legendary figures in owl lore. His competitive brother, Kludd (Ryan Kwanten), doesn’t believe in these legends, and lacks the confidence in his own flying abilities that Soren has.

This Cain and Abel duo are abducted by a cult of owls who prey upon orphaned owlets (which Soren and Kludd are not) and use them as slave labor in their nefarious operation. Led by the Vader-ish Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton) and his seductive mate Nyra (Helen Mirren), this group calls their breed of owl the “pure ones” and plans to exterminate all the owls that aren’t part of it. Soren and Kludd are pure ones, fortunately, but they go in different directions. Kludd is flattered by Nyra and becomes involved in the cause of the “pure ones,” while Soren escapes to find the guardians of the kingdom of Ga’Hoole and prevent the owlocaust.

The guardians of Ga’Hoole aren’t just a legend after all, which probably does not surprise you. A scarred, gnarly old warrior owl named Ezylryb (Geoffrey Rush) acts as Soren’s Obi-Wan, while a burrowing owl named Digger (David Wenham) and a pompous older owl named Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia) who plays the lute serve as sidekicks.

As a general rule, I don’t like fantasy stories about places with apostrophes in their names, or stories whose characters are called things like Ezylryb. Nothing against the genre; just not my thing. But “Owls of Ga’Hoole” is rooted in the basic elements of lively storytelling — the hero’s journey, brother vs. brother, saving one’s people — and it turns out Snyder’s trademark slow-motion close-ups of grappling warriors in mid-grapple are even cooler in computer-animated 3D, even when the actors are owls.

Audiences that fully appreciate a blisteringly choreographed fight between birds are probably older than the audiences that fully appreciate cartoons about owls, but that’s a problem for the marketing department, not me. This is strangely awesome stuff, in places, and it’s self-aware enough to include a song by pop act Owl City without turning into full-on irony.

B (1 hr., 29 min.; PG, some owl-on-owl violence, probably a little intense for very young children.)

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