More than most modern directors, Zack Snyder has been able to build a cult of fans around himself. As the long, bizarre tale of the rumored Snyder Cut that became the real-life Zack Snyder’s Justice League indicates, the director has a fanbase that will obsessively follow and adore his work. But there is one movie in his filmography that rarely appears in retrospectives on his uber-violent, slow-motion films, and it is about to leave Netflix. That movie is 2010’s Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, a hit film about the ideological conflicts and fierce battles between various factions of talking owls. If you think a fantasy movie about talking animals does not really sound like Zack Snyder, you owe yourself a watch of this deeply strange, oddly beautiful movie before it leaves Netflix at the end of June.
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole came after a run of Zack Snyder successes. His debut feature Dawn of the Dead was well-received and praised for injecting flair and vitality into the death-throes of George A. Romero’s long-running zombie franchise. 300 adapted a cult Frank Miller graphic novel into a nearly half-billion-dollar box office gross and a newfound interest in Zack Snyder as an auteur. His following take on Alan Moore’s Watchmen was controversial in comic book circles for both departing from the narrative of source material and for replicating the visuals too precisely, which just goes to show how you can’t really make anyone happy. Then, in the most left-turn of left-turns, Zack Snyder decided to make a children’s movie.
Of course, it being a Zack Snyder movie, it is an intensely dark and violent children’s movie. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole is adapted from the first three books of a series by Kathryn Lasky and follows the adventures of a group of sibling owls. The primary character is Soren (Jim Burgess), a young and adventurous owl who enjoys hearing the legend of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole, a group of warrior owls who fought against the sinister Pure Ones. He has a jealous brother named Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) and a tiny sister named Eglantine (Adrienne DeFaria), along with parents voiced by Hugo Weaving and Essie Davis. It should give some indication of the shocking level of talent voicing CGI owls in this Zack Snyder film that even the relatively minor roles of the hero’s parents are voiced by Agent Smith and the mother from The Babadook. Throughout the course of the movie we get owls voiced by Helen Mirren, Sam Neill, Geoffrey Rush, Joel Edgerton, and Abbie Cornish, which is a lot of star power for any children’s movie.
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole has a staggering amount of exposition to get through early on, but Zack Snyder does not stop at just unloading a bunch of fictional words like Ga’Hoole, moonblinking, and the sea of Hoolemere. That would be par for the course with fantasy series. But this movie also graphically breaks down how owls vomit up pellets composed of the bones and fur of their digested prey and fly silently due to the size and heaviness of their wings, which also make it difficult for to learn as owlets. That’s right: this is a movie in which kids not only get to see adorable owls, they learn the fundamentals of owl biology.
The actual plot of Zack Snyder’s Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole follows Soren, Kludd, and Eglantine as they get kidnapped by the half-scary/half-goofy minions of Metalbeak (Joel Edgerton), a gruesomely disfigured, fascistic owl who is brainwashing owlets into a cult of personality wage war against the Guardians, who he plans to kill by having their blood sucked out by razor-winged bats. To reiterate, this is a children’s movie. In a way, Zack Snyder should be admired for toeing the very edge of what a children’s story can portray, including blood-stained feathers and actually terrifying moments from the revenge-driven Metalbeak.
It helps that Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole is visually stunning. It was made in conjunction with Animal Logic, the animation studio that had recently had enormous success with Happy Feet, the dancing penguin movie from Mad Max creator George Miller. It makes sense that they felt they could replicate a hit animated children’s movie from a director mostly known for grim, violent movies like Zack Snyder. Originally released in 3D, the movie has incredible detail and magnificently manages the ever-difficult task of making near-photo-realistic animals actually have humanlike facial expressions. Of course, this is a Zack Snyder movie, so there is lots of slow-motion combat, but remarkably, the fact that it is being waged by various distinct species of owls makes it somehow both more and less real.
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole was actually fairly successful at the box office, pulling in a solid $140 million. It met more mixed reviews from critics, who praised its darkness and visuals but also largely dismissed its attempts at humor. Zack Snyder would follow up his lone attempt at a children’s movie (so far!) with his biggest flop ever, then would join Warner Bros as the mastermind behind the DCEU. We all know how that went, but before the end of the month, head to Netflix for all the helmed, slow-motion owls you can take.