Before I get to finally review a favorite movie again, I’m going to work my way through a review of the recently released (still playing in places) The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.
Oh, what is that? you ask? You’ve got a point there, admittedly. It’s interesting, but while the movie obviously cost quite a few bucks, they somehow didn’t spend too much on advertisement, since basically none of the people I told about this movie had ever heard of it before.
So what is it about? Think of a mash-up of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, re-enacted with owls. And yes, you read just right: owls as in owls, the birds.
See, I’m a big fan of all things fantasy, and Sauron knows how seldom fantasy movies are good, alone in terms of styling, look and alla that (let’s not even start about plot or messages). So I was pleasantly surprised, because being the all around CGI thing that Legend of the Guardians is, it looked amazing. As in really fantastically awesomely amazing. There are several sequences within the movie that are breathtaking, throughout the whole movie the animation of all the owls is superb and there never is a moment when the CGI looks cheap or just downright unbelievable. Seems like animators in China have worked overtime on this one.
Having said all that, the movie sucks. Since it looks so good, expectations are high (at least when I want it to be a good movie), and I could have done with a mediocre plot and stuff. What ultimately happened is that I left the cinema feeling somewhat betrayed, because it’s all there: Awesome animation, the willingness to tell a story and a whole bunch of potentially interesting characters to work with. All of that didn’t add up because of some horrible mistakes owing to Hollywood-mainstreaming of tropes and characters and left me with the distinct impression, that there was a huge bucket of potential just thrown back in the sea, leaving us with a promise that never got fulfilled. Yes, that dramatic.
The storytelling in Legend of the Guardians has two major flaws: Forgetting that it is a fantasy and undermining its own message.
The first flaw is one that we encounter numerous times within the genre of Fantasy (be it books, comics, video games or movies): A fantasy world is created, and while it inevitably will mirror our world and our realities, it is important that it follows its own logic. And not that of our world. This concept boils down to one central question: When it is a fantasy realm, why does everyone have to behave like they’re living in our world and everything take place like there were no other possibilities? It is a frustrating question to pose at Legend of the Guardians, because it starts with interesting premises: There are no human beings in this world (although I got the sense, that there have been humans in the past – do the books elaborate on that?), or at least we never get to see them. There are other species besides the owls, but the story focuses on them, which is fine and works to some extent. Because this is the first step into troubling-questions-territory: Why does the protagonist-owl-Soren have a snake-nanny? And why is she the only snake we ever get to see? Even if she’s just a mere token to add some diverse flavour (which is a whole bag of no-no to avoid), why a snake? Leaving that question open does not create mystery, but confusion, cause it reeks of world-building not thought through.
A similar problem is the owls blacksmithing: The concept itself is so ridiculous and out of the blue that it becomes really intriguing, but the movie never takes it to the level of exploring how owls would come to do this, and how their physical features would lead to the creation of other techniques and tools. What we get is owls working with human tools and human concepts and some (terrific, admittedly) CGI to make it look plausible.
But these two issues are only halfway to what really bothers me. If this is a fucking fantasy world, how come that we have to reproduce sexist gender stereotypes (among owls)? I would swallow a whole lot of the concept if it made sense, since we have a patriarchal owl society with supremacist tendencies, where a group of liberal minded owls struggle for the freedom of all, but while that makes for a nice concept, it never translates into the plot and into the characters, in that they are predominantly male, with the females being a) evil, b) love interests, c) sisters in need of protection, or d) mothers. And for the Bechdel test: the female characters never talk to each other in terms of having an actual conversation, and their interaction remains limited to either being enemies, rivals, or mother and daughter.
This film would have fared a lot better if it would have taken its female characters serious and thought about how this owl society might be gender equal (and still produce supremacist tendencies in some). The closest we get to that is with the evil queen Nyra, who rules and rages, but since she is the only one being that powerful or even round as a character and the unmistakably evil one – well, that makes for an unsettling message.
Which leads us to the other flaw:
I applaud the movie for taking up such a subject matter and turning it into a movie for children. It is a creative and slightly subversive way of talking about the issue of racism, about what happened in Nazi-Germany and Apartheid regimes all over the world. However, it goes terribly wrong.
While obviously someone (presumably the authoress) has thought, that the whole “the Tyto-owls are the best” mantra uttered by the bad guys isn’t really countered by, ermh, the hero (and the alterna-owls king and queen in Ga’Hoole…?), and it might be good to come up with Lyze van Kiel to provide a hero that is not of this particular owl-“race,” he ultimately turns out to not be able to really defeat the bad guy and we end up with the message that it is bad to think that the Tyto-owls are better than all the rest, but really, within the main cast, they really are better than the rest. I’m a little stunned that it never occurred to anyone in the production process that the whole morale of the story is basically undermined and that they actually perpetuate the supremacist-owls message. Which is basically like saying: Racism is bad, but what it really needs, is a white guy to free all them black folks, cause they are too weak to do it themselves. Which is, yep, a very racist notion. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not about either-or, both sides have to work together, but in a struggle against oppression by one dominant group, it is those who are not part of the dominant group by default, who should lead the struggle and define their goals. Soren is in a privileged position, and he rejects it, instead choosing to help, but he ultimately does not focus on the help aspect (which also encompasses letting other owls have their say and support them in their leadership), but becomes the hero by bringing about the sort of change he envisions. We’ll totally get to that in my review of “White Like Me” by Tim Wise, hopefully tomorrow.
So, to sum up: The movie sucks because there is beautiful animation, an interesting and highly relevant issue and some interesting ideas (Why only owls? Where does the whole story take place? How is the whole owl-society structured?), but ultimately the thing doesn’t take off, because the producers didn’t dare to make it the fantasy world that it is and even worse, didn’t trust their own message, blurted it out, but rejected it for the actual story. Non-white owls (cause that is what they are by implication) are just as awesome as the white-owls, we are told, but sorry, not awesome enough to carry the story and resolve the struggle, we’ll leave that to the white-owl-dude (cause how could it be a woman, right?). I just realize that I haven’t even talked about the Cain and Abel storyline of brother against brother, but let me say this: I felt it was forced, even though it could have been a lot worse than it was. And the addition of the little sister to make sure we understand on whose side we are supposed to be is blatant evidence of how little the producers didn’t trust their supposed audience to get it. Urgh.
Sum up of the sum up: The movie sucks in a lot of ways, but I’d still recommend you to see it. Not only for the amazing animation, but for the potential buried beneath the dreck. Oh, and it totally got me interested in the books, hoping they’ll prove to be better thought through.