Sunday, January 19, 2014

I Love It, But It Sucks: Legend of the Guardians

So The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has come and gone, and I've had a good month or so to collect my thoughts on the matter.  Unfortunately, my thoughts on DoS so closely mirror my thoughts on the previous installment that going over them again would feel redundant.  In a nutshell, DoS is bloated and poorly paced, with a climax that so thoroughly breaks the film that it merits its own analysis once it comes out on Blu-ray.

However, if the Hobbit films have taught us anything over the last two years, it is to appreciate brevity and a solid pace when we can find it in the age Epic Cinema.  Yet brevity can lead to failure just as easily as bloat, as evidenced by 2010's Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole.

In many ways Legend of the Guardians is the anti-Hobbit: it is an adaptation that crams three children's novels worth of narrative into a single film and does so at what can most charitably be described as a "brisk" pace.  Despite this, LotG ends up having many of the same problems that the Hobbit films suffer from, and often for the same reasons.

Like the Hobbit movies, LotG isn't a complete failure.  For one thing it is absolutely fucking gorgeous.

I would not be exaggerating if I said that this is one of the prettiest animated movies I have ever seen.  From a purely technical standpoint it is simply astounding what this studio was able to accomplish.  I'm not a huge fan of director Zack Snyder's work, but this might be the only time where I didn't mind his use of slow motion.  If it means I get to take a moment to appreciate scenes like this, all the better:

Major props must also go out to the lighting and production design, which manages to take the concept of "Owls in armor" and make it look it look both heroic and menacing in turn.

 But as much as I think every American animation studio (including the mighty Pixar) should take note of the technical achievements of LotG, they should by no means try to emulate the story and pacing.  For like both Hobbit films, LotG a complete mess as a story, and Snyder's break-neck pacing does nothing to help matters.

The problems begin shortly after the title sequence, whereupon our hero, the young owlet Soren (Jim Sturgess), gives one of several exposition dumps to his two siblings.  After a brief scene with their snake nursemaid (because why the hell wouldn't owls have snakes as nursemaids?), the children's parents return before transitioning to another scene preceded by an exposition dump about the mechanics of flight.  Within five minutes Soren and his brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) have fallen from their tree and are abducted by a pair of evil owls that take them and several other owlets to a reform school/brainwashing facility run by Nyra (Helen Mirren), Metalbeak (Joel Edgerton) and the Pure Ones.  After Kludd joins the Pure Ones, it is up to Soren and his new elf owl friend Gylfie (Emily Barclay) to learn to fly and warn the titular Guardians about the Pure Ones' plot.

All of that happens before the 30 minute mark.  If that seems like an awful lot of ground to cover in half an hour, you would be correct.  In fact, if you thought that all of that might be enough to base an entire book around, you would again be correct.  As I mentioned, LotG is adapted from three books in the Guardians of Ga'Hoole series, with elements of a fourth book thrown in for good measure.  Because there is so much material, the movie is forced to keep the story moving at a good clip.  While this means that the story never gets bogged down, it also means that the characters--and by extension the audience--are never given a chance to breath or develop.

The character of Grimble is an excellent example of this shortcoming.  From what we learn during his limited screen time, he is a proud and skilled warrior being blackmailed into serving the equivalent of Owl Nazis.  That alone makes him an interesting character, but we are never allowed to learn anything more about him.  Instead, he gives Soren and Gylfie the world's shortest flying lesson before making a heroic sacrifice in order to make room for two new characters who will never be given enough time to develop.

But it's not just the pacing that prevents the characters from growing; nobody gets to develop because there are simply too many characters.  Consider that by the end of the first act we have met the following characters: Soren, Kludd, their younger sister Eglantine, Mrs. P the nursemaid, their father Noctus and mother Marella, henchmen Jatt and Jutt, Grimble, Gylfie, Nyra, Metalbeak, Allomere and had several mentions of the character Lys of Kiel.  That's almost as many Thorin's entire company, with at least six more introduced before the third act.  That is way too many characters to expect an audience to keep straight in a 97 minute movie, especially when several of them look the same due to being the same species of owl.

In the end, I really did enjoy Legend of the Guardians.  It took a novel concept and brought it to the screen with some of the best animation I have ever seen.  Like the Hobbit films, though, it suffers from poor pacing and from trying to cram too many character into its narrative.  But whereas The Hobbit and DoS could each stand to be about 30 minutes shorter, I've always felt that LotG needed to be at least 30 minutes longer.  Given a little time to let its characters breathe and develop and I think that it could have been a film worthy of its amazing effects.

Because seriously, have I mentioned how gorgeous this movie is?

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