Director Zack Snyder attempts to shoehorn his heavily art-directed mayhem into a kiddie-pic mold with predictably ill-fitting results in “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.” Though visually stunning and blessed with immaculate 3D work, film is fatally bogged down by tackling an essentially ridiculous premise (gladiator-attired owls fight genocide) with stony solemnity, and by subsisting on a note of sustained menace and terror in what is ostensibly a children’s film. Box office returns should be robust, though it seems unlikely that the film will spawn the hoped-for franchise.

While Snyder’s most obvious gift is his knack for sumptuous visuals, he also extols an admirable fidelity to the spirit of his source materials — his refusal to acknowledge the barely-hidden camp elements of “300,” for example, was as essential to that film’s success as its balletic action. But in adapting Kathryn Lasky’s young adult novel series (the first three of which form the story here), the latter tendency is exactly what lets him down. Owls attired in gladiator helmets, wielding swords while erectly intoning such lines as “through our gizzards the voices of the angels speak to us” could be great fun if imbued with the slightest dash of winking humor, but Snyder approaches the premise with a documentarian’s grim seriousness.

The film opens on adolescent barn owl brothers Soren (Jim Sturgess) and Kludd (Ryan Kwanten), bickering in their treetop home. Dreamy Soren is obsessed with telling elaborate tales of the mythical hero owls called Guardians of Ga’Hoole, especially to cutesy younger sibling Eglantine (Adrienne da Faria), while the more practical Kludd disapproves.

This glimpse of quiet domesticity proves to be the film’s first and last down moment, as Soren and Kludd are in quick succession knocked out of their home to the forrest floor below, attacked by a Luciferian wild boar, and kidnapped by a marauding pair of adult owls who transport them to a facility that’s half Dickensian orphanage, half concentration camp.

Now imprisoned at the St. Aegolius Academy for Orphaned Owls, the terrified young avians are paraded before kapo Nyra (Helen Mirren), who imparts them with a speech extolling the racial purity of tyto barn owls, recruiting the latter type as soldiers, while enslaving the other species to a lifetime of sorting through heaps of owl pellets (shown in all their squeamishly cloacal glory) for stray metal flecks to power a fearsome electromagnetic weapon.

Thrown in with the latter group for his insolence, Soren and new companion Gylfie (Emily Barclay) manage to dodge a frightening hypnosis process, then escape with the help of turncoat guard Grimble (Hugo Weaving). Eventually, the two reach the legendary city of Ga’Hoole, where fabled warrior Ezylryb (Geoffrey Rush) trains Soren in the art of war. Meanwhile, Kludd segues from simple stick-in-the-mud to genocidal villain with little explanation, even voluntarily betraying his younger sister Eglantine to the cause.

The strain of condensing three books into a single film becomes apparent quite often, as important chunks of this mythology are introduced without warning or style, and characters that were presumably reader-faves — such as bumbling nomads Digger (David Wenham) and Twilight (Anthony Lapaglia) — are just gracelessly dropped into the story, then mostly ignored.

But a far bigger problem is the film’s increasingly brutal violence and unrelenting tenor of terror. There are throat slashings, impalements with flaming spikes and dramatic tumbles into lakes of fire, and several characters seem to spend the entire film doing little but trembling and cowering in horror. While these incidents obviously lack the gooey visceral details with which Snyder would likely have imbued them in “300,” they still feel wildly inappropriate for a film marketed to children.

The owls are rendered with startlingly lifelike detail, far surpassing anything that either Snyder or animators Animal Logic (“Happy Feet”) have accomplished in the past (a slow-motion sequence of Soren flying through a rainstorm is breathtaking). Although just as often this works to the film’s detriment: Any non-ornithologists in the audience will likely find it impossible to distinguish certain characters on sight alone, and some of the story’s more whimsical elements (grizzled owl blacksmiths who forge iron helmets, a matronly snake (Miriam Margolyes) who functions as Soren’s nanny) appear all the more ridiculous for their photorealistic sheen.

All other technical contributions are top-notch, and the 3D work is stellar.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

  • Production: A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation in association with Village Roadshow Pictures of a Village Roadshow and Animal Logic production. Produced by Zareh Nalbandian. Executive producers, Donald De Line, Deborah Snyder, Lionel Wigram, Chris de Faria, Kathryn Lasky, Bruce Berman. Directed by Zack Snyder. Screenplay, John Orloff, Emil Stern, based on the novels "Guardians of Ga'Hoole" by Kathryn Lasky.
  • Crew: Camera (color, 3D); lighting, Craig Welsh; editor, David Burrows; music, David Hirschfelder; production designer, Simon Whiteley; art director, Grant Freckelton; story supervisor, Alexs Standermann; animation supervisor, Alex Weight; digital supervisors, Aidan Sarsfield, Ben Gunsberger; supervising sound editor and designer (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Wayne Pashley; re-recording mixers, Phil Heywood, Peter Smith, Wayne Pashley; associate producers, Katrina Peers, Imke Fehrmann, Wesley Coller; casting, Kristy Carlson, Danny Long. Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, September 16, 2010. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 91 MIN.
  • With: Voices: Soren - Jim Sturgess Gylfie - Emily Barclay Kludd - Ryan Kwanten Twilight - Anthony LaPaglia Grimble - Hugo Weaving Nyra - Helen Mirren Allomere - Sam Neill Ezylryb - Geoffrey Rush Otulissa - Abbie Cornish Mrs. Plithiver - Miriam Margolyes Digger - David Wenham Eglantine - Adrienne de Faria Metal Beak - Joel Edgerton <b>With:</b> Sacha Hornler, Bill Hunter, Essie Davis, Barry Otto, Richard Roxburgh, Angus Sampson, Deborra-Lee Furness, Leigh Whannell, Gareth Young
  • Music By: