Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010)

Rated: PG for some sequences of scary action.
Length: 97 minutes
Grade: B-BB+B=B
Budget: $80 million
Box Office: $152 million (56 U.S., 84 Intl., 12 DVD)

Written by: John Orloff (A Mighty Heart, Band of Brothers) and Emil Stern (Tenderness, The Life Before Her Eyes), based on the novels of Kathryn Lasky.
Directed by: Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 30, Dawn of the Dead)
Starring the voices of: Jim Sturgess, Ryan Kwanten, and Emilie Barclay
With the voices of: Helen Mirren, Sam Neill, Geoffrey Rush, Hugo Weaving, Anthony LaPaglia, and David Wenham.

When they are kidnapped by the totalitarian owl nation led by the evil Metalbeak, one young brother owl falls under the spell of the “pure ones” and stays to be a good wingsoldier while the other brother owl escapes to seek the rescuing help of the legendary owls of Ga’Hoole.

Entertainment Value: B-
My boys loved this and have been watching it as much as they can since we first saw it about a week ago. I thought the animation (of the feathers, in particular) was excellent, but I had a hard time following the plot since distinguishing the various birds wasn’t easy for me. The basic idea of the movie is in some ways largely derivative of Watership Down, the classic novel/movie by Richard Adams or perhaps Animal Farm by Orwell. But the one thing I was very surprised about was my initial and ongoing sense that this was by no means a fluffy little kids movie about cute owls. It deals with dark and sinister subject matter in a very unchildlike way (much like Watership Down). It’s still good, I just want you to know it isn’t what you may be expecting, and that might explain its unspectacular box office performance.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B, Language A
Some PG kids movies make me angry at the MPAA because they should really be G. This is not one of those movies. This is rightly PG, precisely because of the very serious subject matter of political oppression, betrayal, and violence. There were several creepy and/or concerning scenes, but nothing bad enough that we stopped the movie. But our boys watch a lot of movies that other parents would wait until their kids are older to expose them to. I’d say PG-8 for most people. Birds are abducted from their families, used in slave-like roles, subjugated with fear, brainwashed (moon-binked), and there is fighting and killing of humanized owls.

Significant Content: B+
As a presentation of totalitarianism (a la WW II Germany and the Hitler Youth) versus democracy, this is pretty good. However, I wasn’t quite sure whether younger kids would really pick up on the contrast being portrayed. They’ll know the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad, but that’s because of sinister behavior rather than political philosophy. We know Mufasa is good and Scar is evil, but is that because Scar is deformed and has a lisp while Mufasa is strong and handsome or is it because of the character of their notions of leadership? The good guys here do clearly care for the weak and love freedom, while the bad guys use the weak and live by strictly enforced obedience. Also, my favorite element was that a famous war hero gives a brief statement about the ingloriousness of warfare, even though it’s necessary, a refreshing (but all too brief) antidote to the legend-repeating frivolity of kids’ version of military victories. There’s also some early themes about the importance of stories and pursuing your dreams, but these are dropped by the second major scene and never heard again. And a recurring theme is the importance of following your gizzard (heart) even against what your head tells you.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
There’s plenty to think about and discuss here, plus the animation, as I mentioned, is very good. The use of slow-motion in the fights really helped both dramatize them and make them easier to follow. If there’s a flaw, it’s the derivative nature of the thing (there’s even a Rafiki-like bumbling prophet in this movie). Nevertheless, you can do much worse than create a newer Lion King and Watership Down (or even Transformers/Decepticons) for the next generation of kids to know.

Discussion Questions:
~When movie villains are shown as deformed or obviously mean, does this set up children to look for precisely the wrong markers when trying to decide whom they should trust or follow?
~When characters are leveraged into serving the evil owls, things always turn out worse for them than they were told. How is this a useful illustration of sin and serving Satan?
~In what ways, precisely, do the tree owls and the pure ones differ? Consider how they identify skills in new recruits, how much central planning they employ, and the ability to elect leaders. Are the tree owls better described as a democracy or as an aristocracy?
~What do you think of the Guardian Oath to mend the broken, make strong the weak, and vanquish evil?
~What cues are kids given in this movie that they should dislike the pure ones? Consider the Nazi imagery used in the speech by Metalbeak.
~What sort of tactics do the pure ones employ to keep their troops in line, other than fear? Why does this work so well on Kludd?
~Why is it that the pragmatic character in movies these days almost never turns out to be the good guy, while the dreamer almost always is?
~Is it always a good idea to “go with your gizzard?” How can we know when to trust our hearts and when to trust our minds? What does the Bible say about this?
~How does the story of Kludd and Soren compare with the story of Cain and Abel?
~Compare the way Jesus won over Satan with the way the good owls vanquish the pure ones in this movie?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Soren meeting his hero. What do you learn about military conflict and war legends from this encounter?
~Moon-binking the smaller owls, especially Eglantine.
~The final battle.

Overall Grade: B
This is a useful movie about political philosophies and justice for slightly older kids that deals honestly with some fairly sinister material. I wouldn’t have thought an owl movie could be so fierce and frightening. Then again, Watership Down was about furry little rabbits, wasn’t it? And don’t worry, you’ll get used to the Aussie accents about halfway through the movie.

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