"Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole" is essentially the kids' version of "Braveheart" with owls — a dark and dense tale filled with noble warriors, mighty clashes and feathers flying (rather than kilts, whew, a relief). Though there is less blood in Ga'Hoole and nothing disemboweled, there are many raging battles, and when the fighting fowls strap on those metal talons … let's just say it's strong stuff for the young set this 3-D animated film has in its sights.
On paper it would seem the perfect match of story and storyteller, with director Zack Snyder pouring all that he's learned about ancient legends and fantasy worlds from his action and ab-packed "300" into this sometimes soaring drama. The magnificent arcing swoops and spins of the owls achieved by the animation team (the folks behind "Happy Feet," as the ads trumpet loudly) make such good use of the 3-D technology you can almost feel the pure freedom and joy of flight.
But there's a confusion that you can sense as well, with the film pulled between its light and dark sides just as the owls struggle with forces of good and evil. That hesitation keeps "Guardians" from reaching the deep, emotionally rich center that confers greatness in the animation world. (You can't help but hope Pixar doesn't hold the patent on heartfelt high notes, though at times it seems the case.)
Adapted by John Orloff and Emil Stern from the first three in the children's 15-book series "Guardians of Ga'Hoole" by Kathryn Lasky, our central characters are Soren ( Jim Sturgess) and Kludd ( Ryan Kwanten), brothers at increasingly lethal Cain and Abel odds, though you have to wonder if the names their parents gave them sealed that destiny. They are barn owls, commoners within the owl community, with their heart-shaped faces — a mask of white feathers tipped by dark brown — so beautiful it's hard to believe that evil could be lurking, though of course it is.
The central tension of the film is set up when Soren and Kludd are kidnapped after falling from the nest when they attempt to fly while the parents are out picking up some mice for dinner. A morality tale through and through, this particular fall from grace is only the first in a series, with real consequences meted out in ways that may frighten little ones.
It turns out that young owl abductions are on the rise, with evil marauders called the Pure Ones trying to build a slave army of moon-blinked owl chicks (apparently a hazard of the species — look at the light too long and risk a white-eyed zombie-like future.) The Pure Ones have world domination in mind, with a scarred and bitter general, a sooty owl named Metal Beak ( Joel Edgerton) and a snow white sorceress named Nyra ( Helen Mirren) stirring up a bad brew. (The list of characters is long, topped by Geoffrey Rush's Ezylryb, with the comic relief pair of Digger [ David Wenham] and Twilight [ Anthony LaPaglia] the best of the bunch.)
With the stage set, young Soren begins that important quest to find the mythic protectors of all things good, the Guardians, the warrior owls of Ga'Hoole he learned about at his father's knee. And there is his even tougher journey from innocent owlet into an adult who trusts his gizzard, which we learn is how one takes the measure of an owl.
The animation itself is startlingly beautiful, as is the ancient owl world it imagines. The battles are complex and, in true Snyder tradition, heavy on the action. The flying sequences are breathtaking, though like plane trips they go on too long. There is some strange laser action caused by piling up "flecks" (or some such thing), which are shiny bits plucked out of the nasty pellets of innards owls routinely cough up. The look is cool — like highly concentrated blue lightning strikes — but out of place in this otherwise low-tech world.