Legend of the Guardians is too slight and too breathless to have any chance of sticking with an adult viewer, but it’s a beautiful, brief ride that is a perfect outlet for Zach Snyder’s sensibilities. A story that is equal parts Tolkien and Lucas, Owls of Ga’Hoole is 90 minutes of distilled high-fantasy that pits mythological owl evil against mythological owl good for the fate of owl-kind. The film never dwells on any particular segment of the plot so it is hard to say the film centers around a specific journey or quest. Rather, it is enough to say that two brother owls, Soren (Jim Sturgess) and Kludd (Ryan Kwanten), become wrapped up in a conflict between the evil “Pure Ones” and the less world-domination inclined “Guardians” of the film’s title, in a struggle for control of the owl-world.

What is immediately palpable in every frame is the joy Zach Snyder takes in the freedom computer animation lends him. He zoom his camera through action in extremely complex ways with perfectly timed speed-ramps all-throughout. Kids film or not, Snyder brings his trademark style to Ga’Hoole and imbues the frequent owl-combat with an edge and severity that you might not expect from something aimed at younger audiences. The animation is top notch, and between the gorgeous virtual photography and Snyder’s spirited, sophisticated use of camera, this is one of the best looking films of the year. The script is solid, hitting each necessary note, but crams a ton of mythology and plotting into a short timespan to the point that the film never stops for a breath.

Soren and Kludd begin the story in their home tree but soon find themselves stranded on the ground of the forest, before being kidnapped by large owls. They end up at the St. Aegolius Academy for Orphaned Owls which is essentially an enslavement camp for the aforementioned Pure Ones. Small owls are brainwashed and assigned to picking irradiated flecks of metal from owl pellets, while the larger, stronger birds are trained as soldiers. “St. Aggie’s” is very much the Deathstar (the flecks are being horded for a super-weapon) by way of Mordor (they’re amassing a huge slave army), and the lead villain Metalbeak is  very much Darth Vader by way of Sauron. While the more impulsive, insecure Kludd is seduced into becoming a soldier, Soren manages to escape with the tiny owl Gylfie, and travels to find the legendary Guardians, picking up a few extra characters along the way.

You might think Soren’s long journey would be a large part of the film, but his crew finds the Guardians extremely quickly. Once the Guardians become fully aware of the Pure Ones’ plan, you might think the build up and march to war would be a drawn-out sequence, but they take off immediately with minimal fanfare. There is never  that “calm before the storm” that makes up so much of the Lord of the Rings films- every beat leads almost immediately to the next. This has the dual result of making the film mercifully free of fat, but also prevents you from ever becoming particularly invested in any character or event. The kids will never get bored though, and you’ll never hate yourself for seeing the film (save for a useless montage cutely set to the ear-abusive Owl City).

If there’s anything that saves the film from its own brevity, it’s a wisely chosen cast of voice actors. Helen Mirren, Joel Edgerton, Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia, and Hugo Weaving (in a bizarre double-casting) all have a blast chewing up digital scenery in a variety of accents with no regional consistency whatsoever. Edgerton’s Metal Beak is an effectively menacing villain, Weaving’s Grimble the perfectly grizzled mentor, while Rush’s Ezylryb is the perfect wizened veteran. The lead crew of owls is mostly forgettable, if charming enough for the brief time you’re following them. The facial animation for these characters is remarkable, and any disconnect should be laid at the feet of the script, as the dynamic digital performances work well in spite of it. 3D is wonderful for enhancing high-altitude combat, the effect doing a lot to sell the dizzying heights. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the frenetic action tends to periodically ramp to slow-motion tableau- Snyder may have the last laugh with speed ramping, as it translates extremely well to the third dimension.

Zach Snyder’s animation debut is an admirable one that continues to showcase his extraordinary eye for telling a story, and that 3D is an excellent tool in the right hands. With enough excitement and striking imagery to be worth a night out with the kids, Legend of the Guardians never quite makes it over the quality hurdle that would seal it as a piece of age-defying entertainment. This is sure to be a crowd-pleaser though, so perhaps the inevitable follow-up will enjoy the freedom to take a moment and breathe.

7.5 out of 10