Sometimes I think only animation should be in 3D. That opinion was bolstered late last week at a presentation of footage from Zack Snyder’s owl fantasy film, Legend of the Guardians, which looked amazing when presented in 3D – certainly much better than the last Warner Bros film I had seen in three dimensions, Clash of the Titans.

Snyder did his usual roadshow schtick, introducing scenes from the film (this has become very much the way he promotes his upcoming films – footage presentations with casual cocktail receptions) and giving the assembled journalists a bit of context. What we saw was often gorgeous; Animal Logic, the CGI house who did Happy Feet, have created a very textured world of anthropomorphic owls, but they have resisted making them cartoony. The owls look like owls, just with slightly malleable and expressive facial features. And their feathers are thick and downy; just watching a few minutes of footage convinced me Legend of the Guardians could move lots and lots of plush owl toys.

The 3D is used well; because so much time is spent flying (at least in the footage we saw), height and depth are key. There’s one fairly stunning sequence where the young owl hero is learning to fly in a rainstorm and the drops of water create an incredible texture. Then he sees a wind current, which is visualized in rain drops, and the 3D gives that current a reality that wouldn’t be possible in a 2D film. It’s actually quite beautiful, and it’s one of those things that argues 3D could be used well.

The look of the film is very impressive, but I’m not entirely clear on the story. It feels complicated, or at least it came across as complicated at the roadshow. Based on a series of children’s novels, Legend of the Guardians reminded me of Watership Down meets Lord of the Rings (which is at least partially due to using the LOTR score as temp music). Our hero owl lives in a fascist owl community and he escapes to search for the mythical Guardians of Ga’hool, some kind of magical owl council or something. He ends up recruiting a ragtag band of questers, while his older brother (with a prerequisite scar-like marking on one eye) joins the forces of evil.

What’s odd about Legend of the Guardians, and what may require an extra leap for older audiences, is that the owls have stuff. In Watership Down the rabbits were just pretty much rabbits but they talked and thought like proper Englishfolk. The owls in Legend of the Guardians have books and they have armor and weapons and fires and boats and all kinds of things. They seem to inhabit a complete fantasy world, not a version of our own. Warner Bros should hope that the older audiences make that leap because while Legend of the Guardians is a talking animal cartoon, it’s definitely one with an edge – a fight scene between the evil owl queen (voiced by Helen Mirren) and an old owl warrior (Geoffrey Rush) showed that Snyder is bringing his visceral action style to this kid’s film. Again, it reminded me of Watership Down, where the rabbits fiercely fought and died. Here they just happen to be wearing big helmets.

I’m interested in seeing the rest of Legend of the Guardians. The film is covered in Snyder’s trademarks – speed ramping is everywhere, for instance – and it’ll be interesting to see how he modulates himself for a family audience. And the 3D and the animation are simply gorgeous. I just hope that the story is as good as the stunning visuals.