Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Legend of the Guardians

I wanted to watch this for a while for one simple reason: I like owls, and the idea of a movie about them was intriguing. Plus the name suggested something more than the animal-centered comedy animation that we see so many of these days. A few days ago I finally saw it.

I found it to be one of the most epic animations I've seen in a long time, and I enjoyed it immensely. Watching it made me feel like a child again, I felt awe and fear and amazement.

Looking back, it feels as if the focus of western animation, at least on the big screen, has moved away from the old 'confrontation between good and evil' and shifted focus towards the personal growth of the protagonist. Take for example Megamind, How to train your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda, Wall-E, Up, Toy Story; whilst all have very credible threats, the focus is more on the characters understanding themselves and their place in the world than defeating some great evil.

Is this a reflection of the times? The idea that the real battle is not against some outsider, but against the worst parts of ourselves? I don't know. All I know is that animated movies with "The Lord of the Rings" style epic struggles against the all-consuming forces of evil are few and far between these days. But Legend of the Guardians does it, and it does it well.

Without going into detail in the plot, it does feature many classic elements of fantasy, with emerging evil, legendary heroes, struggle and hardship and an unlikely band of companions thrown together in the face of adversity, and it all works quite well. I was certainly taken at the time, finding it to be very engaging.

In retrospect, there was almost too much story for the movie. This is expected as it is an adaptation of series of novels, but it means that certain story moments feel rushed, the whole thing feels a little chronologically compressed and suffers a few inconsistencies. For example, two young owls, having only just learned to fly and having flown quite a distance to escape pursuit, almost immediately set out and cross a great distance that it is suggested even adult owls would find almost beyond their endurance. And it's over sea, so there's no chance they could have rested on the way. In fact the same trip is undertaken at different times in the movie and it feels vastly different each time, and while some of this could be explained as non-linear storytelling, other times it just doesn't make sense.

These issues are actually quite minor, but it feels as if it would have worked better as a much longer movie or even a series. It certainly feels as if the world is rich enough to sustain a longer run-time, even with just the current story arc. Or perhaps I think that as an adult, while a child would grow bored by then. Actually that's quite unlikely in my experience; I believe children to have a greater endurance than most adults as far as watching TV and movies goes. Perhaps it's for the sake of the parents, who are unlikely to take their children to the cinema to watch a two hour movie?

One issue that did bother me a little was the 'message' of the movie. Arguably one of the messages was of equality in that the evil owls believe they are the 'master race' who have the right to rule over smaller weaker owls, while the protagonists are of mixed species (including the one that the evil owls belong to, so it's not a case of 'this race is evil' the way it often is in animal-based storytelling) and the main Guardian of the film is in fact a smaller breed of owl. Another is that war is not glorious and it has terrible consequences.

However, the big 'lesson' that the main protagonist learns is to trust his gizzard, not his head. How exactly does that translate into human terms? Trust your gut I suppose, but to a child it may come across as something like 'don't think about what you're doing, just do what you feel like'. Either way I disagree; I believe people already don't spend enough time thinking about their actions.

Another thing that worries me is an argument between the hero and another character where he is accused of being a foolish dreamer and he responds something to the effect that 'our dreams are what make us who we are' (I'm probably misquoting that). While I agree with the generally concept of not giving up on our dreams, the dreams they are talking about are idle daydreams, not goals or hopes for the future.

The quality of the animation is fantastic. It is both technically and artistically impressive. Since owls are nocturnal, much of the movie occurs at night. The artists have taken advantage of by creating some stark images that use the darkness to their advantage, so the available lighting (moonlight, fire, lightning) has more impact. Also worth mentioning are some impressive flying sequences that reminded me why I used to dream of flying, with glorious dawn skies and intense lightning storms.

The visual style itself is unusually realistic. Surprisingly the owls are barely anthropomorphised at all - no wings gripping objects or wingtip feathers gesturing like fingers. Perhaps this style is possible thanks in part to the complete absence of humans, which bypasses most worries about the uncanny valley, but regardless it lends a sense of weight to the film that is perfectly suited to the story. Feathers and fur look amazing, metallic objects are stunning (perhaps doubly so as they stand out so much as almost everything else is mostly natural), and the various set-pieces look wonderful.

There are some excellent dramatic scenes and surprisingly engaging fights. There's more action that I expected, with some pretty effective use of slow motion at times. The sight of owls wearing helmets and carrying weapons is surprising at first, but it quickly comes to feel natural, thanks in large part to how the setting grows (at one point we actually see a smithy), and how effectively they use the weapons while flying.

Overall I give it a 9 out of 10: it's a little lacking in depth in places, but you won't care too much as you quickly get drawn in to this epic and visually stunning movie.

The thing with the "flecks" feels a little strange; perhaps not out of place exactly, but most of the film does not stray too far from what is believable of a world of intelligent animals while the glowing energies of the flecks are more fantastical. Having said that, I wonder if there is some sort of basis to it. I'm not sure why it matters, but I believe there is some kind of justifiction possible.

I believe the flecks are meant to be magnetic. It's my understanding that birds navigate at least partly by sensing magnetic fields, like a built-in compass, so I suppose the idea is that excessively strong magnetic fields destroy their sense of balance and hence their ability to fly or even stay upright (and would probably make them nauseous, explaining how it affects their gizzard the same we that we feel sick in our stomachs). I don't think bats have the same navigational ability, so would not be affected by magnetism.

I do have one other complaint: the Cain and Abel story. I get the idea that the two had the same start in life but ended up in such different places, meaning that who we are is not just a consequence of our blood or situation, but of our choices. However, it felt a little generic and more importantly a little forced: Kludd was a little too quick to turn "dark side", and Soren was always shown in a brighter light (such as when they are 'branching', and Soren is instantly better and Kludd openly cheats). It would have been easier to believe if Kludd had just been a close friend or more had happened to lead them down seperate paths; instead it ends up feeling more like Kludd is inherently evil and Soren inherently superior, as they make such vastly different decisions for no obvious reason, which I don't think was the idea.

Oh, and what's up with the snake? How the hell did that happen?

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