Who would’ve thought that director Zack Snyder would undertake such a project as Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole? Snyder first burst onto the scene with his exceedingly violent Dawn of the Dead remake before moving onto the blood-soaked 300 and the thoroughly adult Watchmen. 2010’s PG-rated Legend of the Guardians is Snyder’s fourth directorial undertaking, and it’s a surprising career move which has unexpectedly paid off. Despite its ridiculously long-winded title and the rote nature of its coming-of-age narrative (reminiscent of Bambi), this is an aesthetically stunning 3-D experience steeped in visual majesty that’s a great fit for Snyder’s dark moviemaking instincts.

Living with his family high among the treetops, impressionable young owl Soren (Sturgess) loves to hear tales about warrior owls known as the guardians of Ga’Hoole. When Soren and his cynical brother Kludd (Kwanten) sneak out of home one night to practise flying without adult supervision, the two owls are promptly kidnapped and taken to the lair of the wicked “Pure Ones” led by Nyra (Mirren) and Metalbeak (Edgerton). Soren and Kludd find themselves amongst several kidnapped owls and owlets, who are being hypnotised to engage in slave labour to help construct a doomsday device with harvested metal flecks. While Kludd chooses to join the Pure Ones army, Soren and newfound young friend Gylfie (Barclay) stage an escape, and head off in search of the guardians to warn them of the Pure One’s evil plans.

Written by John Orloff (Band of Brothers) and Emil Stern, Legend of the Guardians compresses the first three books of Kathryn Lasky’s Guardians of Ga’Hoole series into one 90-minute feature. A lot of ground needed to be covered, causing the script to falter as it struggles to introduce the franchise’s mythology and characters on top of covering all of the important plot points. The result feels fairly underdone, with director Snyder rushing through so many events without giving us a chance to digest them all. Legend of the Guardians is also a breeding ground for clichés – its story is very much a traditional hero’s journey, and it contains such elements as a prophecy and a brother who turns evil. Unfortunately, too, Snyder clearly had a bit of trouble adapting to the animation medium, as his storytelling is somewhat on the bland side. Snyder has never been the most competent storyteller, and his flaws are only exacerbated by the transition to animation. Added to this, the owls are a bit hard to distinguish from one another due to underwhelming characterisations.

In spite of its flaws, Legend of the Guardians is visually stunning. Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon are 2010’s best all-round animated movies, but Legend of the Guardians possesses the best animation; it’s one of the most visually intricate movies in history. The details and nuances of the animals are jaw-dropping; every feather on every owl looks real, and the textured backgrounds are remarkably close to photorealism. The characters seem truly alive, and in 3-D you truly feel as if you can reach out and touch the featured creatures. Snyder has always excelled as an action director, and these talents are visible throughout Legend of the Guardians – he’s done a sensational job of staging owl combat. One could be fooled into believing Snyder has gone soft on us by undertaking this picture, but he did not abandon his darker side. This is a family film in which owls wear battle armour and attack one another with stomach-churning ferocity. Indeed, the PG rating should be noted, as this is not a suitable picture for anyone under the age of 10 or 12. The only catastrophic misstep from a technical standpoint is a cringe-worthy training montage set to a pop tune from the band Owl City.

The voice cast contains a lot of recognisable Australian talent, including Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia, David Wenham, Hugo Weaving (playing two roles), Barry Otto, Joel Edgerton, Richard Roxburgh, Bill Hunter, Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell. In terms of international talent, we have Sam Neill, Helen Mirren and Miriam Margolyes. Even if a lot of these names seem like stunt casting, the acting is nevertheless uniformly strong. Rush is the biggest standout; he’s extremely authoritative and believable as Ezylryb.

Ultimately, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole is a bit of a mixed bag. One cannot deny its visually stunning nature, yet it needed more soul and stronger storytelling. It’s hard to hold too much against the movie, though, as its 3-D animation is game-changing and it contains several outstanding action set-pieces.