Halfway through the production of "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole," director Zack Snyder began feeling pressure to lighten the tone of his 3-D animated feature.
Executives at Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures, the movie's backers, were worried that the story was too dark for younger audiences, a primary target. They wanted Snyder, known for the R-rated action movies "300" and " Watchmen," to add humor and "charm" to "Guardian's" tale about the battle between good and evil in a fantasy owl kingdom.
The creative tensions between financiers and filmmaker illustrate why "Guardians" faces significant hurdles as it opens Friday. The foreboding and weighty aspect of the film stands in stark contrast to the upbeat and fast-paced humor that audiences have come to expect from such animated family films as the "Toy Story" and " Shrek" series and even Warner's last animated production, the 2006 hit "Happy Feet."
"They started saying, 'Let's make it's funnier,' " Snyder said of his first animated movie and first for a family audience. "But you can't have someone in a 'Lord of the Rings'-like story doing a fart joke. It doesn't work."
Snyder mostly resisted their entreaties. Like the young-adult books on which it's based, "Guardians" is a fantasy adventure featuring intense battle scenes and some graphic violence, which could limit its commercial prospects, particularly for families with small children. A review in the Hollywood trade paper Variety said the movie had "a note of sustained menace and terror in what is ostensibly a children's film."
And, because it's an animated film about owls, it will have a tough time drawing Snyder's usual young male fan base and older adults.
"The challenge for us was that everybody wants to go to movies to have a big experience and have fun," said Warner worldwide marketing President Sue Kroll. "We have to show that you can have fun without being funny." The target audience, she said, is parents with kids 8 to 12.
Kroll acknowledged that "Legend of the Guardians" has several obstacles to overcome, including the absence of major stars voicing the characters who could help market the film, a book series as source material that's relatively obscure and a wordy title (the books are called "Guardians of Ga'Hoole," referencing a legendary tree in which heroic owls live, but Warner moved that word into a subtitle for the film after research indicated many people didn't know what it meant or how to pronounce it).
Surveys of potential moviegoers indicate that the film, which cost about $80 million to produce, after tax credits, and nearly $50 million to market in the U.S. alone, is poised to have a soft opening weekend of less than $20 million.
Foreign box office prospects are also uncertain, although Warner Bros. expects the best results in family film-friendly Latin America and in Australia, where the movie was produced and from where many of its voice actors hail.
Jeff Robinov, head of Warner's motion picture group, said "Guardians" is "intentionally not a cookie-cutter movie and is edgier than some family films," but he hopes it will perform as least as last year's "Coraline," which grossed $75 million domestically. Though that film didn't include any violence, "Coraline" was spookier than most animated fare.
Kroll attributes the lack of public buzz about "Guardians" in part to the absence of advance publicity screenings because the film wasn't finished soon enough. But she and the filmmakers believe an advertising campaign that kicked into high gear this week, including spots on a number of network season premieres and kids' cable shows, as well as a global promotional partnership with Burger King and several online video games, will boost its appeal.
While ads aimed at children downplay the film's somber moments, those for general audiences emphasize the epic scale, including spectacular 3-D effects that all involved tout as one of the picture's prime assets.
"Visually, it's something really new and interesting Zack has done here," said Deborah Snyder, one of the film's executive producers and wife of the director. "Parents won't be cringing while they watch this with their kids."
Unlike "Watchmen," which Warner aggressively promoted as coming from the director of "300," advertising material for "Legend of the Guardians" makes no mention of Snyder. Instead, ads brag that the movie comes "from the studio that brought you 'Happy Feet.' "
"Zack Snyder's built-in audience is not the one we're targeting here," Kroll said. "He brought an amazing visual style, but consumers, especially families, are not that familiar with him."
Indeed, there's not much at all in "Legend of the Guardians" that audiences are familiar with, at least in animated form. Hollywood has had a less-than-stellar track record when it comes to veering off the path of mainstream animation. The 2000 science-fiction adventure "Titan A.E." was an infamous flop and even more successful, darker films such as "Monster House" brought in less than $80 million domestically.
"There is a certain perception that animated movies need to be kid-friendly and have a certain lightness to them," said Kevin Koch, a veteran animator and outgoing president of the Animation Guild. "The most successful animated movies have serious elements that are balanced with a huge amount of comedic, light playful characters."