Some books for young people, like Harry Potter, Captain Underpants and The Hunger Games, manage to come to the attention of the saggy-fleshed members of the public. This is because the books either have some literary merit, or are offensive in some way.
But old folk have shown little interest in the Guardians of Ga'Hoole series: 15 cheaply produced paperbacks, selling for less than $6 each, and written in what seems like a hurry. They lack the literary pretensions of some of the arty young-adult stuff, so they don't show up in hipster literary mags. They also don't include the kind of objectionable content needed to get uptight parents who hate reading to use their outrage-power to try to get the books removed from libraries, as though the role of libraries is to limit the number of books an unsuspecting citizen might be exposed to.
But they are, in their own cheap way, weird, complex and riddled with the kind of controversial elements that children's books should have.
They focus on owls who speak English, and who live (it is hinted) in a post-apocalyptic future. Their prey—the moles and voles of the world—also have the ability to speak and reason. So you have sequences in which the books' protagonists feed upon desperate, scared rodents who occasionally plead for their lives before being gobbled up. It's weird stuff, but it illustrates an element of the natural world that doesn't show up much in your standard talking-animal fare.
This ability to lay out harsh scenes is part of the strange genius of author Kathryn Lasky. She writes for young people, and not to impress adults; this leaves her the freedom to tell those young people some very disturbing truths that most grown-ups would rather leave undiscussed.
In the film Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) left out some of Lasky's more controversial elements, including the eating of sentient beings, and the gore and dismemberment that are central to her scenes of warfare. These sequences would probably appall any parents who read the books, but they effectively de-romanticize warfare.
Still, Snyder has done, for the most part, a remarkable job of bringing these under-heralded books to the screen. While I admire a lot about the series, Lasky can be a rushed and sloppy storyteller—and Snyder has taken the first three books of the series, tightened up the plot and created a complex but cohesive narrative in a tight 97 minutes.
Most importantly, his visual sense is perfect for the post-apocalyptic fantasy world in which the owls live. His presentation of the Great Ga'Hoole Tree, legendary home to the knightly Guardians of Ga'Hoole, will more than thrill any of the books' fans. That tree is central to the sense of the world that Lasky creates, and Snyder does his best to bring that world to the screen. It's not just that there's a kingdom of owls; it's that there are legends, hundreds of years of history and a complex set of owlish practices that Lasky often presents via the owls' idiosyncratic lingo.
As a result, Snyder is faced with the possibility of a lot of exposition. He works most of this fairly naturally into the dialogue, though some of it is so subtly touched on that those who haven't read the books might miss what's happening.
What's happening is that, among the many species of owls that live together in the owl kingdoms, some barn owls—or "tyto," as they call themselves after their Latin genus—believe themselves to be a master race. They consider the other species fit only for servitude or sport-killing.
In other words, there are a bunch of Nazi owls trying to take over the world.
Young barn owl Soren, his sister Eglantine and his brother Kludd are kidnapped by these birdly fascists and taken to a labor camp. Each responds very differently: While Kludd gets all brown-shirty, Soren flies off on a quest to find the legendary Guardians of Ga'Hoole, a mythical cadre of knightly owls who live on a mist-shrouded island in the middle of the world.
This is all filmed in some of the best 3-D I've seen. It's not quite Avatar quality, as the animation is more cartoony, but in some ways, it works better than Avatar, because the 3-D effects aren't constrained by an interest in realism. Also, even though the dialogue in Legend of the Guardians is aimed at the intellectual capacities of 9-year-olds, it is, unlike the dialogue of Avatar, not totally stupid.
Snyder, whose previous films have been good-looking but simpleminded, may have found his calling in the children's-animation genre. He can indulge his visual prowess, and Lasky's stories—which take on deep issues in a manner that's simple enough for an 11-year-old to grasp—are just right for Snyder's sensibility.